For years, the FDA has defended its efforts to intercept prescription drugs coming from abroad by mail as necessary to keep out dangerous opioids, including fentanyl.
The pharmaceutical industry frequently cites such concerns in its battle to stymie numerous proposals in Washington to allow Americans to buy drugs from Canada and other countries where prices are almost always much lower.
But the agency's own data from recent years on its confiscation of packages containing drugs coming through international mail provides scant evidence that a significant number of opioids enters this way. In the two years for which KHN obtained data from the agency, only a tiny fraction of the drugs inspected contained opioids.
The overwhelming majority were uncontrolled prescription drugs that people had ordered, presumably because they can't afford the prices at home.
The FDA still stops those drugs, because they lack U.S. labeling and packaging, which federal authorities say ensure they were made under U.S. supervision and tracking.
The FDA said it found 33 packages of opioids and no fentanyl sent by mail in 2022 out of nearly 53,000 drug shipments its inspectors examined at international mail facilities. That's about 0.06% of examined packages.
According to a detailed breakdown of drugs intercepted in 2020, the lion's share of what was intercepted — and most often destroyed — was pharmaceuticals. The No. 1 item was cheap erectile dysfunction pills, like generic Viagra. But there were also prescribed medicines to treat asthma, diabetes, cancer, and HIV.
FDA spokesperson Devin Koontz said the figures don't reflect the full picture because U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the primary screener at the mail facilities.
But data obtained from the customs agency shows it likewise found few opioids: Of more than 30,000 drugs it intercepted in 2022 at the international mail facilities, only 111 were fentanyl and 116 were other opioids.
On average, Americans pay more than twice the price for exactly the same drugs as people in other countries. In polling, 7% of U.S. adults say they do not take their medicines because they can't afford them. About 8% admit they or someone else in their household has ordered medicines from overseas to save money, though it is technically illegal in most cases. At least four states — Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, and New Mexico — have proposed programs that would allow residents to import drugs from Canada.
While the FDA has found only a relatively small number of opioids, including fentanyl, in international mail, Congress gave the agency a total of $10 million in 2022 and 2023 to expand efforts to interdict shipments of opioids and other unapproved drugs.
"Additional staffing coupled with improved analytical technology and data analytics techniques will allow us to not only examine more packages but will also increase our targeting abilities to ensure we are examining packages with a high probability of containing violative products," said Dan Solis, assistant commissioner for import operations at the FDA.
But drug importation proponents worry the increased inspections targeting opioids will result in more uncontrolled substances being blocked in the mail.
"The FDA continues to ask for more and more taxpayer money to stop fentanyl and opioids at international mail facilities, but it appears to be using that money to refuse and destroy an increasing number of regular international prescription drug orders," said Gabe Levitt, president of PharmacyChecker.com, which accredits foreign online pharmacies that sell medicines to customers in the U.S. and worldwide. "The argument that importing drugs is going to inflame the opioid crisis doesn't make any sense."
"The nation's fentanyl import crisis should not be conflated with safe personal drug importation," Levitt said.
He was not surprised at the low number of opioids being sent through the mail: In 2022, an organization he heads called Prescription Justice received 2020 FDA data through a Freedom of Information Act request. It showed that FDA inspectors intercepted 214 packages with opioids and no fentanyl out of roughly 50,000 drug shipments. In contrast, they found nearly 12,000 packages containing erectile dysfunction pills. They also blocked thousands of packages containing prescription medicines to treat a host of other conditions.
Over 90% of the drugs found at international mail facilities are destroyed or denied entry into the United States, FDA officials said.
In 2019, an FDA document touted the agency's efforts to stop fentanyl coming into the United States by mail amid efforts to stop other illegal drugs.
Levitt was pleased that Congress in December added language to a federal spending bill that he said would refocus the FDA mail inspections. It said the "FDA's efforts at International Mail Facilities must focus on preventing controlled, counterfeit, or otherwise dangerous pharmaceuticals from entering the United States. Further, funds made available in this Act should prioritize cases in which importation poses a significant threat to public health."
Levitt said the language should shift the FDA from stopping shipments containing drugs for cancer, heart conditions, and erectile dysfunction to blocking controlled substances, including opioids.
But the FDA's Koontz said the language won't change the type of drugs FDA inspectors examine, because every drug is potentially dangerous. "Importing drugs from abroad simply for cost savings is not a good enough reason to expose yourself to the additional risks," he said. "The drug may be fine, but we don't know, so we assume it is not."
He said even drugs that are made in the same manufacturing facilities as drugs intended for sale in the United States can be dangerous because they lack U.S. labeling and packaging that ensure they were made properly and handled within the U.S. supply chain.
FDA officials say drugs bought from foreign pharmacies are 10 times as likely to be counterfeit as drugs sold in the United States.
To back up that claim, the FDA cites congressional testimony from a former agency official in 2005 who — while working for a drug industry-funded think tank — said between 8% and 10% of the global medicine supply chain is counterfeit.
The FDA said it doesn't have data showing which drugs it finds are unsafe counterfeits and which drugs lack proper labeling or packaging. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that, among the more than 30,000 drugs it inspected in 2022, it found 365 counterfeits.
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the trade group for the industry, funds a nonprofit advocacy organization called Partnership for Safe Medicines, which has run media campaigns to oppose drug importation efforts with the argument that it would worsen the fentanyl epidemic.
Shabbir Safdar, executive director of the Partnership for Safe Medicines, a group funded by U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers, said he was surprised the amount of fentanyl and opioids found by customs and FDA inspectors in the mail was so low. He said that historically it has been a problem, but he could not provide proof of that claim.
He said federal agencies are not inspecting enough packages to get the full picture. "With limited resources we may be getting fooled by the smugglers," he said. "We need to be inspecting the right 50,000 packages each year."
For decades, millions of Americans seeking to save money have bought drugs from foreign pharmacies, with most sales done online. Although the FDA says people are not allowed to bring prescription drugs into the United States except in rare cases, dozens of cities, county governments, and school districts help their employees buy drugs from abroad.
The Trump administration said in 2020 that drugs could be safely imported and opened the door for states to apply to the FDA to start importation programs. But the Biden administration has yet to approve any.
A federal judge in February threw out a lawsuit filed by PhRMA and the Partnership for Safe Medicines to block the federal drug importation program, saying it's unclear when, if ever, the federal government would approve any state programs.
Levitt and other importation advocates say the process is often safe largely because the drugs being sold to people with valid prescriptions via international mail are FDA-approved drugs with labeling different from that found at U.S. pharmacies, or foreign versions of FDA-approved drugs made at the same facilities as drugs sold in the U.S. or similarly regulated facilities. Most drugs sold at U.S. pharmacies are already produced abroad.
Because of the sheer volume of mail, even as the FDA has stepped up staffing at the mail facilities in recent years, the agency can physically inspect fewer than 1% of packages presumed to contain drugs, FDA officials said.
Solis said the agency targets its interdiction efforts to packages from countries from which it believes counterfeit or illegal drugs are more likely to come.
Advocates for importation say efforts to block it protect the pharmaceutical industry's profits and hurt U.S. residents trying to afford their medicines.
"We have never seen a rash of deaths or harm from prescription drugs that people bring across the border from verified pharmacies, because these are the same drugs that people buy in American pharmacies," said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, which advocates for lower drug prices. "The pharmaceutical industry is using the FDA to protect their price monopoly to keep their prices high."
This article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.