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Let's blame Canada

Americans should worry less about their neighbour and more about the prestige of regulators who protect public health.

Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is worried that the importation of cheap pharmaceuticals could expose Americans to attack from bioterrorists. In an interview with the Associated Press on 11 August, he raised the potential contamination of imported drugs as a threat to national security.

In practice, the imports come mainly from Canada, where drugs are subject to government price controls. They are increasingly sanctioned by state governments in the United States, where citizens are tiring of paying inflated prices for medicines. The Bush administration — taking its cue from US drug companies — would like to close the door to such imports.

As that acclaimed documentary the South Park movie demonstrated, the United States' paranoia about its threatening northern neighbour is richly justified. But Canadian perfidy must not blind Americans to a starker domestic threat: the degeneration of once-prestigious federal agencies, such as the FDA, into political poodles.

The FDA has an inspiring history. Its record of stalwart independence is one of the reasons Americans have such high confidence in the safety of both their pharmaceuticals and their food supply. Only a few years ago, for example, FDA commissioner David Kessler launched an audacious effort to regulate tobacco as a drug. Congress opposed the move and Kessler received little support from his bosses in the Clinton administration. But his stand, for a while, had ‘big tobacco’ shaking in its boots.

Today, the chances of such an initiative originating within the FDA itself are slight — not much larger than the chances of someone choosing to terrorize the US public by contaminating a shipment of drugs before their export from Canada. It is scandalous that the FDA's leadership seems ready to make politically motivated pronouncements that link two serious issues — drug pricing and bioterrorism — in a manner likely only to inflate public cynicism about both.

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Let's blame Canada. Nature 430, 815 (2004).

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