WASHINGTON – Northern border crossings for prescription drugs along with Internet orders on Canadian pharmaceutical Web sites has turned into a $700 million per year business, but consumers reaching outside the United States are being warned against the personal importation of medicine.
Aside from it being illegal to import international drugs, the Department of Health and Human Services (search) has warned that it is dangerous as well.
The 145-page report from an HHS task force released Tuesday finds significant risks with the current system, citing inferior products and bogus Web sites.
"It would be extraordinarily difficult and costly for personal importation to be implemented in a way that insures the safety and effectiveness of imported drugs," the report reads.
That's a far different conclusion from one President Bush suggested he might draw while he was out on the campaign trail.
"Now, it may very well be here in December you'll hear me say, I think there's a safe way to do it," Bush said during his re-election fight against Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
But outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (search) said the bill for insuring the safety of foreign drugs would end up not saving anyone any money.
"That would take about $3 billion if you're going to open up the importation of drugs for all of that in order to properly inspect the plants in order to protect the American public," Thompson said in a Wednesday press conference.
Critics, however, say the report is highly suspect because of what they see as a cozy relationship between the Bush White House and the pharmaceutical industry.
"This report has conclusions that are predictable, designed to prop up the pharmaceutical industry, and ultimately hostile to the intent of Americans to take advantage of lower drug prices across the border in Canada," said Peter Lurie of the advocacy group Public Citizen (search).
"To get serious about lowering prescription drug prices for all Americans, President Bush must stop serving as a handmaiden for the pharmaceutical industry," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Thompson said all the panel members on the task force were open-minded and unbiased, and the critics seem to have no new evidence to offer. White House spokesman Scott McClellan added that "the president's top priority has always been the safety of the American people when it comes to drugs, and that will remain his top priority."
The report adds that generic drugs in the United States are already cheaper than in other countries. But it stopped short of threatening legal action against the states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have defied U.S. regulations and set up drug purchase programs with Canada.
For most Americans, the report has no practical effect. The government has not cracked down on individuals importing prescription drugs for personal use even though the threat of prosecution remains. Pelosi said Democrats plan to introduce legislation in the 109th Congress that will allow for safe drug importation.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Steve Centanni.