For years, the FDA has defended its efforts to intercept pharmaceuticals coming from overseas by mail as essential to hold out harmful opioids, together with fentanyl.

The pharmaceutical {industry} regularly cites such considerations in its battle to stymie quite a few proposals in Washington to permit People to purchase medication from Canada and different international locations the place costs are virtually at all times a lot decrease.

However the company’s personal knowledge from latest years on its confiscation of packages containing medication coming by means of worldwide mail supplies scant proof {that a} vital variety of opioids enters this manner. Within the two years for which KHN obtained knowledge from the company, solely a tiny fraction of the medication inspected contained opioids.

The overwhelming majority have been uncontrolled pharmaceuticals that folks had ordered, presumably as a result of they’ll’t afford the costs at residence.

The FDA nonetheless stops these medication, as a result of they lack U.S. labeling and packaging, which federal authorities say guarantee they have been made underneath U.S. supervision and monitoring.

The FDA mentioned it discovered 33 packages of opioids and no fentanyl despatched by mail in 2022 out of almost 53,000 drug shipments its inspectors examined at worldwide mail services. That’s about 0.06% of examined packages.

In response to an in depth breakdown of medication intercepted in 2020, the lion’s share of what was intercepted — and most frequently destroyed — was prescription drugs. The No. 1 merchandise was low cost erectile dysfunction tablets, like generic Viagra. However there have been additionally prescribed medicines to deal with bronchial asthma, diabetes, most cancers, and HIV.

FDA spokesperson Devin Koontz mentioned the figures don’t mirror the total image as a result of U.S. Customs and Border Safety is the first screener on the mail services.

However knowledge obtained from the customs company exhibits it likewise discovered few opioids: Of greater than 30,000 medication it intercepted in 2022 on the worldwide mail services, solely 111 have been fentanyl and 116 have been different opioids.

On common, People pay greater than twice the worth for precisely the identical medication as individuals in different international locations. In polling, 7% of U.S. adults say they don’t take their medicines as a result of they’ll’t afford them. About 8% admit they or another person of their family has ordered medicines from abroad to economize, although it’s technically unlawful typically. At the least 4 states — Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, and New Mexico — have proposed packages that might permit residents to import medication from Canada.

Whereas the FDA has discovered solely a comparatively small variety of opioids, together with fentanyl, in worldwide mail, Congress gave the company a complete of $10 million in 2022 and 2023 to broaden efforts to interdict shipments of opioids and different unapproved medication.

“Further staffing coupled with improved analytical expertise and knowledge analytics strategies will permit us to not solely look at extra packages however may also enhance our focusing on skills to make sure we’re inspecting packages with a excessive likelihood of containing violative merchandise,” mentioned Dan Solis, assistant commissioner for import operations on the FDA.

However drug importation proponents fear the elevated inspections focusing on opioids will lead to extra uncontrolled substances being blocked within the mail.

“The FDA continues to ask for increasingly taxpayer cash to cease fentanyl and opioids at worldwide mail services, nevertheless it seems to be utilizing that cash to refuse and destroy an rising variety of common worldwide prescription drug orders,” mentioned Gabe Levitt, president of, which accredits international on-line pharmacies that promote medicines to prospects within the U.S. and worldwide. “The argument that importing medication goes to inflame the opioid disaster doesn’t make any sense.”

“The nation’s fentanyl import disaster shouldn’t be conflated with secure private drug importation,” Levitt mentioned.

He was not stunned on the low variety of opioids being despatched by means of the mail: In 2022, a corporation he heads known as Prescription Justice obtained 2020 FDA knowledge by means of a Freedom of Info Act request. It confirmed that FDA inspectors intercepted 214 packages with opioids and no fentanyl out of roughly 50,000 drug shipments. In distinction, they discovered almost 12,000 packages containing erectile dysfunction tablets. Additionally they blocked hundreds of packages containing prescription medicines to deal with a number of different circumstances.

Over 90% of the medication discovered at worldwide mail services are destroyed or denied entry into america, FDA officers mentioned.

In 2019, an FDA doc touted the company’s efforts to cease fentanyl coming into america by mail amid efforts to cease different unlawful medication.

Levitt was happy that Congress in December added language to a federal spending invoice that he mentioned would refocus the FDA mail inspections. It mentioned the “FDA’s efforts at Worldwide Mail Amenities should deal with stopping managed, counterfeit, or in any other case harmful prescription drugs from coming into america. Additional, funds made accessible on this Act ought to prioritize instances by which importation poses a major risk to public well being.”

Levitt mentioned the language ought to shift the FDA from stopping shipments containing medication for most cancers, coronary heart circumstances, and erectile dysfunction to blocking managed substances, together with opioids.

However the FDA’s Koontz mentioned the language gained’t change the kind of medication FDA inspectors look at, as a result of each drug is doubtlessly harmful. “Importing medication from overseas merely for value financial savings shouldn’t be a adequate motive to reveal your self to the extra dangers,” he mentioned. “The drug could also be wonderful, however we don’t know, so we assume it’s not.”

He mentioned even medication which might be made in the identical manufacturing services as medication supposed on the market in america may be harmful as a result of they lack U.S. labeling and packaging that guarantee they have been made correctly and dealt with inside the U.S. provide chain.

FDA officers say medication purchased from international pharmacies are 10 occasions as prone to be counterfeit as medication offered in america.

To again up that declare, the FDA cites congressional testimony from a former company official in 2005 who — whereas working for a drug industry-funded suppose tank — mentioned between 8% and 10% of the worldwide drugs provide chain is counterfeit.

The FDA mentioned it doesn’t have knowledge displaying which medication it finds are unsafe counterfeits and which medication lack correct labeling or packaging. The U.S. Customs and Border Safety knowledge exhibits that, among the many greater than 30,000 medication it inspected in 2022, it discovered 365 counterfeits.

Pharmaceutical Analysis and Producers of America, the commerce group for the {industry}, funds a nonprofit advocacy group known as Partnership for Secure Medicines, which has run media campaigns to oppose drug importation efforts with the argument that it might worsen the fentanyl epidemic.

Shabbir Safdar, govt director of the Partnership for Secure Medicines, a gaggle funded by U.S. pharmaceutical producers, mentioned he was stunned the quantity of fentanyl and opioids discovered by customs and FDA inspectors within the mail was so low. He mentioned that traditionally it has been an issue, however he couldn’t present proof of that declare.

He mentioned federal companies should not inspecting sufficient packages to get the total image. “With restricted assets we could also be getting fooled by the smugglers,” he mentioned. “We have to be inspecting the proper 50,000 packages every year.”

For many years, thousands and thousands of People searching for to economize have purchased medication from international pharmacies, with most gross sales executed on-line. Though the FDA says persons are not allowed to carry pharmaceuticals into america besides in uncommon instances, dozens of cities, county governments, and college districts assist their workers purchase medication from overseas.

The Trump administration mentioned in 2020 that medication could possibly be safely imported and opened the door for states to use to the FDA to begin importation packages. However the Biden administration has but to approve any.

A federal choose in February threw out a lawsuit filed by PhRMA and the Partnership for Secure Medicines to dam the federal drug importation program, saying it’s unclear when, if ever, the federal authorities would approve any state packages.

Levitt and different importation advocates say the method is commonly secure largely as a result of the medication being offered to individuals with legitimate prescriptions through worldwide mail are FDA-approved medication with labeling totally different from that discovered at U.S. pharmacies, or international variations of FDA-approved medication made on the identical services as medication offered within the U.S. or equally regulated services. Most medication offered at U.S. pharmacies are already produced overseas.

Due to the sheer quantity of mail, even because the FDA has stepped up staffing on the mail services lately, the company can bodily examine fewer than 1% of packages presumed to include medication, FDA officers mentioned.

Solis mentioned the company targets its interdiction efforts to packages from international locations from which it believes counterfeit or unlawful medication usually tend to come.

Advocates for importation say efforts to dam it shield the pharmaceutical {industry}’s income and harm U.S. residents making an attempt to afford their medicines.

“Now we have by no means seen a rash of deaths or hurt from pharmaceuticals that folks carry throughout the border from verified pharmacies, as a result of these are the identical medication that folks purchase in American pharmacies,” mentioned Alex Lawson, govt director of Social Safety Works, which advocates for decrease drug costs. “The pharmaceutical {industry} is utilizing the FDA to guard their worth monopoly to maintain their costs excessive.”

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