Should American patients be allowed to import lower-cost prescription drugs from overseas?

AstraZeneca is to increase its stockpiles of drugs by about a fifth in preparation for a no-deal Brexit after European regulator told companies to be ready for a possible hard Brexit in April 2019.

Americans buy foreign drugs that are several times cheaper than in the United States. In recent years, thousands of drug shortages have been reported in Canada.

Skyrocketing cost of drugs pushes Americans to buy drugs overseas

Americans make regular trips to buy drugs abroad at a low cost. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is seen among buyers. On Sunday, July 28, he joined a group of travelers in Windsor, Ontario, to buy insulin, a vital medicine for regulating blood sugar. Like many industrialized countries, Canada regulates pharmaceutical prices through the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board. Although this organization does not control the margins of retailers, the prices of generic drugs and the prices at which the cost of drug insurance is reimbursed, it makes sure that the drugs cost no more than in other countries.

In the United States, by contrast, pharmaceutical prices are not regulated at all. According to the International Federation of Health Plans, US residents pay 2-6 times more for medicines than people in other countries. An insulin ampoule costs about $340 in the United States — about 10 times more expensive than in Canada. According to CBC News, the cost of this medicine in the States over the past 4 years has increased by 97%.

Meanwhile, in the 1920s, doctor Frederick Banting, one of the discoverers of the hormone insulin, sold his share of the patent to the University of Toronto for only $1 because he wanted this vital medicine to be available to everyone.

Americans are actively buying drugs overseas also because it does not require a prescription. On Friday, July 26, the Canadian Pharmacist Association issued a statement stating that drug shortages «increased significantly» over the past 5 years across the country. According to a published document, 67% of pharmacies in Canada experience drug shortages several times a day.

The import of drugs from abroad in most states is prohibited, as authorities south of the border believe that their northern neighbor does not adhere to sufficiently stringent drug production standards. However, 10 US states have already authorized imports. Therefore, drug shortages in foreign countries are expected to become even more acute. Pharmacists in the UK claim that their products will not be enough for two countries. However, this problem can be easily solved if Senate Bill S. 97 is adopted.

What is Senate Bill S. 97?

Senate Bill S. 97 (the Affordable and Safe Prescription Drug Importation Act) would allow wholesalers, pharmacies and individuals to import prescription meds from an FDA-certified foreign seller.

According to this bill, the law does not prohibit Americans from buying drugs abroad until they purchase products for their own use in quantities that don’t exceed a 90-day supply.

The purchased product will be required to have the same active ingredient, route of administration and dosage as drugs approved in America.

Advantages of buying drugs abroad

There are 3 arguments in favor of buying drugs abroad:

  1. Quality. The main reason why many patients are willing to buy drugs in foreign countries is quality. Foreign drugstores like Canadian Pharmacy strictly control the absence of counterfeit or expired medicine;
  2. Price. This is one of the good reasons why people go to the Internet and order meds overseas. All drugs in foreign pharmacies are cheaper. This is especially true if the doctor prescribed you a long-term treatment (up to 3 months). In this case, the wholesale purchase of the necessary medicines at a lower price will save your budget significantly;
  3. Variety and assortment. Vitamins, dietary supplements, creams, oils and various ointments are popular optional products that do not have a clear link to medical products but are very popular all over the world. They often can be bought only in foreign pharmacies. Many Americans become active buyers of highly specialized foreign online pharmacies because they offer a wide range and the most advantageous purchase offers.

Is it really safe to buy drugs overseas?

It is quite safe to purchase meds abroad if you choose a large and well-known pharmacy.

On the Internet, you can often run into unscrupulous sellers. Such sellers may not be registered as legal entities, may not have a license for the retail sale of medicines, qualified personnel, and proper storage conditions for products.

To avoid purchasing counterfeit medications, follow these tips:

  • Do not buy medications that are extremely cheap. This is a sign of rogue drugstores. Or the product will expire soon;
  • Avoid sellers that do not have a business address and phone number;
  • Pay attention to the packaging. It is important to ensure that the drugs are registered. Otherwise, the drug is sold illegally. If the packaging is damaged and there is no production date, manufacturer and expiration date on the package and inside on the blister, this is most likely a fake product;
  • If you have doubts about the authenticity of the drug, ask the seller to show you a license or certificate of quality.

How to make sure that the medication is safe?

A lot of drugs are sold in Russia, about which we do not know enough — their effectiveness and safety are not properly proven. Unfortunately, many doctors prescribe such drugs, so it’s best to immediately ask the doctor several questions about the drug — for example, is it used abroad. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) usually has fairly stringent drug requirements, and drugs purchased in this country must be safe.

To check how well the medicine has been studied, you can visit good sites for doctors, for example, and (section Drugs & Diseases), and look for the name there. Most of the articles in UpToDate (except for texts for patients, which can be viewed in a special section) are available only by subscription, but this way you can understand whether the drug is generally used overseas. It often happens that the database simply does not contain any articles on the topic. Such sources provide relevant information.


  1. American patients should be allowed to import lower-cost prescription drugs from overseas;
  2. The issue of drug shortages in Canada will become less acute since their purchase will be controlled by Senate Bill S. 97;
  3. Buying imported medicines is not a simple matter. It will require you to have a good knowledge of the legal aspects in this area;
  4. Many medical products in a foreign pharmacy are cheaper, and some can only be bought there;
  5. Online pharmacies with international delivery are the best option for ordering drugs overseas.