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Our view: Canadian drug threats by FDA border on ridiculous

So let's get this straight: Canada is a Third World country? And what, the United States' largest trading partner, with whom Minnesota shares a border, isn't a safe place to buy Lipitor? Or Flomax?...

So let's get this straight: Canada is a Third World country? And what, the United States' largest trading partner, with whom Minnesota shares a border, isn't a safe place to buy Lipitor? Or Flomax?

That would seem to be the position of the intrepid U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which -- in the apparent interest of protecting us from ourselves, not to mention from those crafty Canadians -- has deemed Duluth's import of prescription medications illegal and potentially dangerous. City officials received a strongly worded letter from the FDA this month alerting them that their efforts to help city workers and city taxpayers save money by buying cheaper drugs from north of the border "most likely" is a violation of federal law.

Most likely? The city's response was music to taxpayers' ears when it comes to a program that's annually saving them as much as $2 million: Duluth, like the state of Minnesota and numerous other government entities before it, refused to back down. Mayor Don Ness even called on the FDA to reduce prescription costs so importing drugs wouldn't be so attractive.

"If the FDA cannot give a definitive answer that this is illegal, that demonstrates the question is still out there," Ness told the News Tribune. "I'm hopeful that the federal government will address [its] own policy, [which] seems to be designed to protect the profit margins of drug companies at the expense of the American citizen."

The city shouldn't have even received the threatening letter. In the interest of protecting itself from liability, the city set up its program so individual employees, not the city, do the actual importing.

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Of course, any threatening letter reaching an FDA outbox probably could be considered an achievement after decades of woefully inadequate funding from successive presidential administrations. Failures, especially of late, have been more prevalent. Just last week, the FDA acknowledged it failed to inspect a Chinese plant that produces the active ingredient for a crucial blood-thinning drug called heparin, leading to a massive recall. FDA officials said they mistook the plant for another with a similar name.

Perhaps the mistake could have been caught had time not been wasted writing letters to government entities without any apparent plan to follow up with enforcement. The letter received in Duluth City Hall indicated packages of drugs to city workers could be detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But the FDA already has told U.S. Customs not to stop shipments of personal-use medications. Further, no action has ever been taken to shut down any government entities' drug importation program, Gabriel Levitt, vice president of PharmacyChecker.com, an independent evaluator of online pharmacies, told the News Tribune.

In its next letter, perhaps the FDA could explain why drugs from Canada (which, by all accounts are just as safe and effective as medications sold in the U.S.) cost 40 percent less -- and what the agency is doing to change that.

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