The FDA and Canadian Drugs: Manufacturing a Scandal

It has been well-known for some time among American consumers that drugs purchased through Canadian online pharmacies, are the best way to purchase prescription medication at prices well below those in the U.S. For getting on two decades now, American consumers have been taking advantage of price reductions of around 70%, and it’s no surprise that these consumers are very often much larger entities than individual buyers.

Indeed, as well as flocks of individuals taking advantage of Canadian drugs, whole municipalities and local governments have been sourcing cheaper medication in this way. In theory, this is perfectly legal providing the drugs are correctly labelled and meet American standards of safety. And because Canada’s regulatory body, the CFIA, has been officially recognized as equivalent to the FDA in the U.S., these drugs are more or less guaranteed to meet every one of those standards.

It was cause for some surprise then, when in 2019, the FDA issued a series of warning letters to several Canadian online pharmacies, citing the sale of “unapproved” and “misbranded” drugs to American consumers as a cause for concern. Perhaps sensing something suspect about the very organization that gave Canadian drug regulation the stamp of approval making such a claim, local government authorities have not heeded the warning and continue to import drugs from Canada. So what’s going on here?

Twists and Turns

The first thing to note about the behavior of the FDA is that it has been both tardy and somewhat contradictory. For one thing, the FDA has issued these warnings exceptionally late in the day, as the importation of significantly cheaper Canadian drugs has been going on for a long time. It should also raise some eyebrows that the FDA itself has acknowledged that they have received no reports of any American citizen being harmed by drugs imported from Canada.

Indeed, the market doesn’t seem to have suffered at all. One large Canadian pharmacy that received an FDA letter works with about five hundred American cities, school districts, and private employers. Bringing private citizen purchases and the many other companies (including Canada Pharmacy) also offering this service into the equation, it is fair to say that the market for cheaper Canadian drugs is significant. And it isn’t just Canadian drugs being sold, many of the Canadian companies operating in this way connect their employees with brick-and-mortar pharmacies in other countries with advanced healthcare systems (most often Australia and the UK) in order to fill American prescriptions.

It certainly highlighted the confusion at the heart of this issue when then American President Donald Trump authorized state governments to import Canadian drugs wholesale into the country, all in the service of providing more affordable medication of American citizens.

Rogue Pharmacies

This is not to say that FDA warnings against foreign drug imports should be disregarded. Because of the hefty reputation for affordable drugs that Canada has garnered, a whole host of rogue online pharmacies, very often based in completely different countries, have cropped up online. These companies can be identity theft scams for criminal organizations, ways of taking money from ordinary Americans and never delivering anything, or they can be quite genuinely selling dangerous substances. It is the FDA’s job to root out such phony online companies.

The FDA has sent warning letters to a few Canadian pharmacies. Although these warning letters seem to be totally ineffective at stopping the cross-border pharmacy trade, they could in theory provide a useful resource for those wishing to avoid scams. What a shame then that they tend to target legitimate companies as well.


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