Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004
Clark of Kennebunk, Maine, is a smuggler of sorts. At 77,
the retired registered nurse doesn't look the part. She
still does volunteer work—administering flu shots,
cutting toenails and organizing blood drives—at the
Southern Maine Medical Center, where she worked for more
than four decades, first in the maternity ward and later
in the operating room.
Clark is a model of frugality as well. She and her husband
Dorrance raised 10 children on modest salaries. When he
developed lung cancer in 1991, she stopped working to care
for him until he died. She has lived in the same house since
she was 1 year old. She seldom buys anything for herself,
reuses already reused sewing material and carefully budgets
her food money. "You plan out what you can afford,"
What has turned Clark into a renegade bargain hunter is
the price of her medications. Like many other elderly people,
she takes multiple prescription drugs for several conditions,
including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and
glaucoma. To make the money stretch, she joins other seniors
in her state on overnight bus trips to St. Stephen, N.B.,
just across the border from Calais, Maine. On average, name-brand
prescription drugs in Canada cost an estimated 40% less
than they do in the U.S. On a trip last November, Clark
did even better than that, buying a six-month supply of
medications for a little more than $1,000, a cache that
she estimates would have cost about $3,000 in Maine for
the same drugs. One of them is Lipitor, the expensive, heavily
marketed cholesterol-lowering drug developed by Pfizer.
"Lipitor is my biggest savings," Clark says. "For
a six-month supply, it's $1,900 in the U.S. I paid $500
[in Canada]." At U.S. prices, she couldn't afford her
total drug bill and would have to pick and choose which
conditions to treat.
Yet what Clark and others are doing is technically illegal,
since the U.S. forbids the import of prescription drugs
by anyone other than the original U.S. manufacturer, and
even then only when the drugs meet all the approval requirements
of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA
contends it is looking out for consumer safety, but in fact
a growing volume of prescription drugs sold in the U.S.
is made overseas and brought in by domestic manufacturers.
What's really being protected, critics say, is the pharmaceutical
industry. It has a powerful partner in the FDA, which over
the past year has conducted widely publicized seizures of
prescription drugs shipped into the U.S. from Canada, Mexico
and elsewhere that it maintains could be harmful to consumers.
The most recent disclosure came last week, when the FDA
revealed a blitz inspection of medicine being imported from
Canada that turned up five packages of an asthma medication,
Serevent, that had been recalled in Canada because of a
While there is no doubt that counterfeit and adulterated
medicines—some potentially injurious, possibly even
lethal—are sold over the Internet by unscrupulous
vendors, a TIME investigation suggests the FDA's actions
against Canadian imports have been part of a concerted campaign
to simultaneously discredit its counterpart agency in Canada,
provoke fear among American consumers who buy their drugs
there, blunt an exploding political movement among local
and state governments to begin wholesale drug buys in Canada
and ultimately preserve the inflated prices charged U.S.
consumers and taxpayers.