AUSTIN, Texas—As many as 40 percent of U.S. residents who enter Mexico this year will return home with a souvenir of their visit — a prescription drug that has not met U.S. Food and Drug Administration safety standards. While the majority may experience no ill effects, many others risk adverse reactions and some actually may die, according to a researcher at The University of Texas College of Pharmacy.
The result of importing these potentially deadly and, often illegal, drugs into the United States is a problem of staggering proportion, said Dr. Marvin D. Shepherd, director of the Center for Pharmacoeconomic Studies at the UT Austin College of Pharmacy. Shepherd’s research includes examination of drugs crossing the U.S. border with Mexico.
"People have been hurt, and some have died, due to the importation of pharmaceuticals," said Shepherd, the Clifford L. Klinck Jr. Centennial Professor in Pharmacy Administration. Shepherd played a key role in getting Rohypnol, a sedative/hypnotic often known as the "date rape drug" banned from the United States in 1997.
The problem along the border mirrors a larger national issue. It is estimated that more than two million packages of drugs enter the U.S. illegally each year through the mail system. Shepherd said this does not include the staggering number of additional drugs that enter the country in the arms, pockets, shopping bags and purses of American citizens traveling home from foreign countries.
Shepherd said U.S. citizens venture into Mexico to purchase prescription drug products because of easy access, lower prices and availability of drugs that are unavailable in the U.S. marketplace. The problem, he added, has significantly escalated over the past 10 years. For example, Shepherd said more than 80 percent of patients in one El Paso clinic alone go to Mexico to obtain their prescription drugs.
"If you want a full perspective of the size of this importation industry, I invite you to visit any one of the Mexican border towns of Texas," he said. "Rows of ‘farmacias’ line the streets of Nuevo Laredo, Juarez, Reynosa and Matamoras. Farmacias are a major tourist draw for the Mexican economy, especially border town economies." Shepherd said the customer base for this industry is U.S. residents.
The top 15 pharmaceutical products entering the U.S. from Nuevo Laredo accounted for $134 million, or nearly six percent, of the total Mexican pharmaceutical market in 1997, Shepherd said.
He stressed that these were figures involving only 15 products from one border city. The totals, he said, are increasing rather than decreasing.
Shepherd cited other research estimates indicating that 41 percent of males and 27 percent of females who purchased prescription drugs in Nuevo Laredo were from 37 different states. Shepherd added that the majority of people bringing controlled substances across the U.S. border are 35 years of age or younger, while only 0.6 percent of all controlled substances entering the U.S. were carried by someone more than 65 years of age.
Checking returning U.S. citizens for the drugs would be a staggering challenge, given the fact that 25,000 to 30,000 people walk across one international bridge and return the same day. In addition, more than one million vehicles cross and return from Nuevo Laredo each month.
Shepherd was among 13 experts who were invited to testify recently on this subject before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce led by U.S. Rep. Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania. Shepherd made these recommendations to Congress:
- Develop a program to educate the public concerning the risks associated with foreign medications, especially the risk of counterfeit drug products. Inform the public that the vast majority of pharmaceuticals coming from Mexico do not have FDA approval.
- Give U.S. customs and FDA officials the added manpower and technological support to develop programs to monitor the importation of foreign drug products.
- Develop a strategic plan to harmonize pharmaceutical business between U.S. and Mexico.
- Enforce existing law that bans the import of all non-FDA approved pharmaceuticals from foreign countries.
- Ban controlled substances from entering the U.S., especially from Mexico.
For more information, contact Dr. Marvin Shepherd at (512) 471-5607 or Vicki Matustik at (512) 232-1769.