In an article published yesterday in the New Ledger, the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Bate contends that the industry’s line on the safety of buying drugs online (they say it isn’t) is largely overblown. Bate describes his recent study of drugs purchased online, and his results provide some evidence against the argument favored by industry that allowing drug reimportation would expose the U.S. consumer to indefensible risk. With the exception of one order of Viagra from China, all of the brand-name drugs his team was able to test (including all those imported from Canada and Europe) met basic quality standards.

Reimportation (or parallel trade) is the importation of drugs designated for sale abroad into the U.S., often at cheaper rates due to pricing controls in countries such as Canada and the E.U. It is currently illegal in the U.S., but individual importation for personal use occurs, largely through internet. (Bate puts the U.S. online drug market at $12 billion.)

In March of this year, Senators Dorgan and Snowe and Representatives Berry and Burton introduced a measure to legalize reimportation. The Pharmaceutical Market Access and Drug Safety Act of 2009 would allow importation of drugs from certain permitted countries, and would institute an inspection schedule and documentation requirements for importers and exporters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has committed to holding a full Senate vote on the bill, likely this fall.

Reimportation has not been included in the health care reform bills proposed in the House and the Senate, though the White House maintains that it supports the idea.

Bate does have a caveat: legalizing reimportation could harm the U.S. prescription drug market and the industry bottom line, affecting research. Considering U.S. consumers pay the most in the world for their drugs, forcing them to continue to ignore cheaper options if they are equally safe is (Bate acknowledges) unfair. While Bate proposes industry form a cartel and force the E.U. to accept higher prices, PostScript submits that spending a little less on marketing (currently $30-$58 billion annually) and refocusing the R&D agenda itself to be more in-line with public health needs might be a step towards a solution.