About a quarter of Americans don’t take their drugs when they should because the prices of those medicines are too high. People are literally dying from high drug prices, yet the cry for drug price relief has spurred little substantive change from Washington. I have a hunch as to why.

Large contributions to members of Congress is commonly identified as the method employed by drug companies to influence lawmakers. A lesser known, yet just as important, scheme is how they influence what we read about drug prices via the production of op-eds by “experts” whose work is funded by drug companies. One target of their work: legislation that would allow the importation of safe, cheaper drugs into the U.S. Drug companies have spun the public into believing the sale of counterfeit drugs and the opioid crisis will be worsened by passing legislation to help people buy safe, regulated and affordable drugs from overseas.

The pharmaceutical industry wants us to believe that all imported drugs are counterfeit. The effort to attack drug importation began in in the early 2000s to thwart the growing numbers of Americans buying medication online from Canada. In 2003, the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) commissioned focus groups on how to discredit importation. They found that patient fear of buying a bad medicine online was a greater deterrent than the fact importation of drugs is illegal. Ads began appearing in popular magazines to scare consumers about importing drugs.

In 2005, PhRMA actually commissioned the writing of a fiction novel in which terrorists taint the Canadian drug supply to kill Americans looking for better prices. The endeavor imploded over disagreement with the publisher. A novel was eventually written, The Karasik Conspiracy, but with a drug company as the lead villain polluting Canada’s drug supply and blaming Muslim terrorists.

In a recent op-ed that is a direct descendent of those focus groups, Sally Pipes from the Pacific Research Institute writes: “It’s estimated that 1 million people die at the hand of counterfeit drugs every year, many of which come from Canada.” This claim (without any source to back it up) shocks the conscience. Deaths from counterfeits are almost exclusively in low-income countries and estimated in the 10s, maybe 100s of thousands, according to the World Health Organization. A much smaller number of deaths, one estimate from 2015 showing nine, from online orders of controlled drugs through overdose (of real drugs) and use of counterfeit drugs, but always from rogue online pharmacies. No deaths are acceptable and counterfeits must be combatted. On the other hand, there have been zero deaths reported from people buying medicines online from licensed pharmacies in Canada or any international pharmacy that requires a valid prescription. 

It’s worth noting who supports Ms. Pipes’ efforts. The president of the Pacific Research Institute, her organization draws support from drug industry players like Pfizer, PhRMA and Altria as well as other corporate titans like the Koch Brothers, Chevron, AT&T and Exxon Mobil. Decide for yourself whether Ms. Pipes statements are free of bias.

There are non-profit organizations funded by drug companies specifically dedicated to public policy about online pharmacies, counterfeit drugs and importation. They spread misinformation. For example, the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, which was founded by Eli Lilly, a leading U.S. drug manufacturer, and the National Association of Chain Drugstores (think Big Pharmacy), pushes a so called “fact” — one that the group wrongly once attributed to the World Health Organization – that 50% of medicines purchased online from websites that conceal their addresses are counterfeit. The WHO never conducted a study that led to that finding or anything like it.

There’s also the Partnership for Safe Medicines — which until just a few years ago was led by a vice president of PhRMA. In its earlier years, the Partnership focused on creating media and pushing op-eds to show importation as a dangerous policy. Today, it focuses on the public health crisis of opioid addiction and overdose (a crisis that multiple lawsuits allege was created by its funders, drug companies) conflating prescription drug importation of regular, non-addictive drugs with illegal opioid drug imports from China. Such conflation has actually led to the FDA seizing the prescription import orders of patients.

All of these groups and pharma-funded op-ed writers ignore the reality of safe personal drug importation that clearly helps people afford medication today. Peer-reviewed research, from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, shows that international online pharmacies verified by U.S.-based PharmacyChecker.com or members of the Canadian International Pharmacy Association are just as safe as medication sold in the U.S. – and a lot less expensive.

There are also self-insured personal drug importation programs and pharmacy “storefront offices” in Florida which Americans are using to buy drugs internationally. Those programs are saving up to hundreds of millions of dollars each year. An FDA “sting” of this personal drug importation process led to the testing of imported medicines. All drugs tested turned out to be safe and accurately labeled.

I for one don’t believe drug importation is the answer to high drug prices. However, it’s a piece of the puzzle and one that people are already benefiting from. We can’t let the drug industry continue its unchecked propaganda against the safe, evidence-based importation of cheaper drugs from online pharmacies. The pharmaceutical industry — and the shills the drug industry is using to spread its propaganda — need to be called out so Americans can finally enjoy the drug price relief they deserve to stay healthy and alive.