Avrim Ben-Izak: Canadian Drugs - Facts & Myths

Editor's Note: Avrim Ben-Izak is the owner of a storefront "Canadian pharmacy" on Geary Boulevard. He has been involved in this business since November 2003 and began doing research on the Canadian pharmacy phenomenon in 2002. In this column, he answers some of the most-common questions concerning buying drugs from Canada.

Q: There is a lot of information floating around about ordering prescriptions from Canada. What is the real story? Is this legal or not?

Ben-Izak: There is a law against importing drugs from other countries - that has been a federal law for years.  However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given legal waivers to people ordering 90-day supplies for personal use only.  So, although there is a law against it, the FDA is allowing it as long as certain guidelines are followed.

Q: What exactly are those guidelines?

Ben-Izak: Aside from the 90-day supply maximum, schedule I, II and III drugs are banned. These are narcotic-based drugs, sleeping pills, pain pills or any medication that can be abused or is habit-forming.

Q: What about safety? The FDA says they can't guarantee the safety of drugs from Canada.

Ben-Izak: This is propaganda put out by the drug manufacturers in collusion with the FDA. Seventy-five percent of the drugs sold in Canada are manufactured in the U.S. They are shipped to Canada and re-imported to the U.S. The drugs that are manufactured in Canada come under the strict control of Health Canada, which is Canada's version of the FDA. Its guidelines for approving a drug are at least as strict as the United State's FDA. The only real variance is that Health Canada usually accepts the FDA test results of drugs that are approved in the U.S.

Q: If most of these drugs are being re-imported, why can't we buy these drugs here at the price Canadians pay?

Ben-Izak: The reason is that Canada has price controls. That is, any manufacturer that wants to sell its drugs in Canada must sell them for a price set by the Canadian government. This is because Canada has a form of socialized medicine and pays for a lot of the population's medical expenses with government funds. Since the government is the purchaser of the majority of the drugs sold in Canada, they can set the price.

Q: What about ordering over the Internet or through "800" numbers. Is it safe?

Ben-Izak: Ordering over the Internet is safe as long as you're dealing with a reputable pharmacy. How to find a reputable pharmacy is a little trickier. When I order over the Internet, I check out the websites that the SF Dept. of Health lists on its site and research any other sites of interest. I can't personally recommend any of the "800" pharmacies that are advertising on various media because I simply haven't done enough research in this area or know people who have experience doing this. 

Q: What about people who don't have computers or do not want to use "800" numbers?

Ben-Izak: There are now storefront locations where a person can go to order from Canada. These types of operations charge the same as if the client went directly to the Internet to order. Instead of raising prices, they are paid a referral fee from the Canadian pharmacy they are doing business with.

Q: Are there any hidden charges?

Ben-Izak: There are no hidden charges. There is a shipping fee of $14.99, which can include numerous prescriptions. The fee is per order so it behooves a customer to fill all their prescription needs at the same time.

Q: How long does it take to get medications from a U.S. store doing business with Canada?

Ben-Izak: It takes about 10 days and the order is shipped directly to the client, not to the U.S. business.

Q: How long do you think this cross-border ordering will continue?

Ben-Izak: As long as the drug companies are allowed to overcharge the American public, this will continue. It has reached a point where the only way this flood from the north will stop is for the drug manufacturers to lower their prices to something close to Canadian prices.

Q: The drug manufacturers claim that they need to charge high prices to support their research and development. Is this true?

Ben-Izak: Not even close! The drug manufacturers spend only 8 percent on research and development. The federal government subsidizes the drug companies an additional 5 percent with our tax dollars (for a total of 13 percent) for their R&D. These companies spend 16 percent of their income on advertising, which is double what they spend on research and development.

Q: What do you think the solution will be?

Ben-Izak: The U.S. has to go to a form of socialized or government subsidized medicine. We are the only developed nation that does not take care of all of its citizens when it comes to health care. We are the wealthiest country on Earth, yet a large part of the population is falling through the cracks when it comes to health care. With the aging Baby Boomer population getting older, the problem is only going to get worse.

Ben-Izak's business, Discount Canadian Pharmaceuticals, is located at 5345 Geary Blvd. For more information, call 831-8602.