Starting Today, Maine Residents Can Officially Import Cheaper Prescription Drugs From Other Countries

CREDIT: Shutterstock

On Wednesday, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to officially allow residents to directly import cheaper prescription drugs from some foreign pharmacies. Proponents of the measure say it could force American pharmaceutical companies to rein in their exorbitantly-priced drugs, giving consumers financial relief. Detractors and the pharmaceutical industry, on the other hand, warn that it may stifle innovation and put consumers at risk of exposing themselves to unsafe products.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow the importation of foreign drugs. The agency echoes pharmaceutical industry concerns that products procured abroad might be risky. But as the Wall Street Journal points out, that hasn’t stopped U.S. consumers — including the city of Portland, Maine — from importing drugs from Canada anyway, often at heavily discounted prices compared to the U.S:

WSJ drug import chart

CREDIT: The Wall Street Journal

Officials and foreign companies that ship medication to the U.S. say that such drugs aren’t risky at all, and the U.S. pharmaceutical complaints are rooted more in profit-protection than they are in consumer protection. “It’s not a safety issue,” said Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “It’s turf.”

Recent data has shown that many sick Americans can’t afford their medicine due to the high costs of U.S. drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 25 million Americans didn’t take prescribed medication in 2009 due to the high U.S. drug costs, and the Commonwealth Fund found that 48 million American adults didn’t fill their prescription in 2010 because of high drug costs. That’s despite the entry of more generic drugs into the market, which cost less than brand-name medication but are still more expensive in the U.S. than they are in countries that have policies in place allowing them to negotiate caps on drug prices.

Maine pharmacy groups and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America are challenging the Maine law in federal court.