Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - A tripartisan group of congressmen has responded to GlaxoSmithKline plc's policy to stop Canadians from reselling drugs to U.S. residents by introducing legislation that would make such business practices illegal.

Reps. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Dan Burton (R-Ind.) believe GlaxoSmithKline's attempt to control its sales in Canada is discriminatory and greedy.

"Drug companies are asking the Republican Congress, [which] they spend $100 million on, to support free trade, but these drug companies are suddenly against free trade when it involves companies reimporting their products," Crowley said in press conference Thursday. "Disgust and shame - that is what GSK and its executives should feel today. But instead, what do they feel? Rich."

Led by Sanders, 49 congressmen signed on to support a bill (HR847) that would prohibit discrimination against U.S. consumers in the form of contract provisions, limitations on supply or any other measure that has the effect of denying U.S. consumers access to prescription drugs from the Canadian market. Violators of this legislation, referred to as "Preserving Access to Safe, Affordable Canadian Medicines Act of 2003," would be subject to civil fines up to $1 million, Sanders said during the press conference.

Sanders wrote the legislation after London-based GSK said it would reduce shipments to Canadian companies known to resell discounted drugs in the U.S. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 18, 2003.)

GSK implemented the policy after learning that many of its drugs were being peddled back into the U.S. via Canadian-based Internet pharmacies. GSK says the practice is not only illegal, but also dangerous. (Legislation allowing reimportation from Canada passed in the Senate last year, but failed in the House.)

Sanders fears that other drug companies will view GSK's policy as a good business move, and implement their own polices. If that happens, he says, elderly people who can't afford drugs will have no place to go.

He's quick to admit he was the first member of Congress to take constituents over the Canadian border to purchase prescription drugs.

"The truth of the matter is that I do not believe that Americans being forced to buy their medicine in Canada is the ideal solution," he said. "I would much prefer that the prices in this country were lowered substantially so that Americans would not have to do that. But the political reality is that the pharmaceutical industry is the most powerful lobby in D.C. and has hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal, and has powerful friends in the White House and in Congress."

At the press conference, Sanders' office released rate charts comparing prices of GSK drugs purchased in the U.S. at CVS drug stores to the price charged by CrossBorderPharmacy.com (a Canadian Internet pharmacy). For example, 100 tablets (4 mg) of the diabetes drug Avandia would cost $278.63 at CVS, compared to $170.66 from the Canadian pharmacy.

When asked about the differences in price, Nancy Pekarek, a spokeswoman for GSK, told BioWorld Today she couldn't comment on prices charged by CVS. However, she offered her own example. Using the GSK senior savings "Orange Card," a customer would spend $60 to buy 30 Avandia tablets, compared to $57 over the Canadian Internet.

And buying from the company offers another benefit, she said. "They know they are getting the FDA-approved drug."

But Sanders said the pharmaceutical industry will say or do anything to protect its profit margins. "One of the arguments they are already using against this legislation is the safety issue," he said.

On that point, Sanders said more than one in five American adults failed to get prescription drugs last year because of the cost. "That figure rose as high as 40 percent for some, including many disabled, minorities and low-income Americans. What about their safety and well being?"

Furthermore, he said, Canada has a strong prescription drug regulatory system. "To the best of my knowledge, despite several million transactions, I have yet to hear of one instance of an individual who has received unsafe drugs from a Canadian pharmacy," he said.

Be that as it may, Pekarek said the practice of reimporting drugs from another country is against the law. (The FDA does allow reimporting in some rare instances.)

GSK's official position remains that Congress needs to pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit plan.