Bad medicine

Tuesday - 3/27/2012, 1:07pm EDT

After hearing a story about counterfeit drugs from China, I wrote a vice president of one of my pharmacies about their products. My questions were simple: "Can you tell me if any of the medicines your company dispenses are made in China? More specifically, does [your company] use any chemicals that are made in China for your medicines?"

This is a big company based in California. I didn't receive a return letter. Instead, I received a telephone call left on my answering machine. (As an old reporter, I've grown suspicious when someone prefers a call to a written document.) The caller said she would call back. She never did.

After another letter and a phone call, I talked to a registered nurse who sounded like she was reading from a script. Their drugs were FDA approved and of the highest quality, she assured me.

I finally got her to tell me where the manufacturers were located, both in the United States, but she admitted she didn't know where the manufacturers purchased their chemicals.

When I mentioned this to one of my doctors, he commiserated with me and handed me a 2009 New York Times article. My doctor told me that even if I contacted the manufacturer, the drug-maker would not have to tell me where it bought its chemical ingredients. Such information is considered a trade secret, according to the news article.

Now consider this. 43 percent of America's generic drugs are made in China and 39 percent in India. The record on chemicals from these two countries is written in blood, literally. Their drugs are often shipped in powder form to U.S. plants where they are pounded into pills and packaged with U.S. labels.

Yes, the FDA does inspect Chinese and Indian plants but not nearly as often as their counterparts in the United States.

The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series in 2007 and 2008 on counterfeit drugs from China. More recently, CBS' 60 Minutes showed its viewers a dirty laboratory in Lima, Peru, where more bad, counterfeit drugs were being manufactured and packaged for sale abroad.

American drug manufacturers are very worried about the flood of foreign, counterfeit drugs. So is the FDA. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA's commissioner, told CBS, "We don't really know the full dimensions of the problem. But, we do know that in certain countries somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of really important drugs for health are, in fact, counterfeit."

There are many anti-government Americans who argue against more regulation. Let the free market sort out the good from the bad.

I tried to sort out who makes my drugs and got nowhere. How about you? Do you think you and the free market can tell good from bad medicine?