Survey: Faced With Unaffordable Drug Prices, Millions Buy Medications Outside U.S.

FDA warns about shady online pharmacies

It’s no secret that some Americans regularly buy prescription drugs on the internet or while traveling abroad. But the popularity of this approach is underscored by the results of a Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in November.

Eight percent of respondents said they or someone in their household had imported a drug at some point––a figure that translates to approximately 19 million adults in the United States, based on current Census population estimates.

The percentage was higher than those in surveys conducted by government interviewers, which suggested that the number was about 2% in 2011—although the government survey focused only on purchases during the previous 12 months. The Kaiser poll queried a nationally representative sample of 1,202 adults.

When purchased outside the country, many prescription drugs cost half or less than they do in the U.S. The FDA has cautioned, however, that many online pharmacies aren’t what they appear to be. An international crackdown in 2014 found that many packages of medications purportedly from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K. contained drugs from other countries, including India, China, and Laos.

According to the FDA’s website, it is generally illegal for Americans to import drugs into the U.S. for personal use. The law isn’t rigorously enforced, however, partly because it is difficult to monitor the entry of medications in suitcases and small packages. But in 2015 the FDA implemented a rule that would give government border inspectors expanded authority to destroy drugs imported for personal use at their point of entry.

In the Kaiser poll, people who had imported medications ranged from college students in their 20s to retirees in their 80s. They bought medications to treat chronic conditions, such as hypertension and thyroid problems, as well as acute conditions, such as sinus infections and acne.

Source: Kaiser Health News; December 20, 2016.