Sick Practices

How some unscrupulous drug-dumping pharmaceutical companies line their pockets during natural disasters.



How'd you like to get rid of unwanted — even dangerous — products by giving them to charity? Then, in addition to getting great press for your generosity, have the government give you back twice the cost of the products in the form of a tax credit? What a deal!

Not if you're the recipient of the dangerous or unnecessary products, specifically pharmaceuticals.

The practice of "drug dumping" occurs when prescribed medicinal items are donated to poor countries, particularly after a natural disaster. Medical staff and much-needed volunteers may spend as much as 70 percent of their time sorting the helpful items from the dangerous ones. If the stuff gets sorted at all.

Here's what's worse. It costs money to properly destroy drugs. And when a country that can barely afford to feed its people is saddled with this new burden, such contributions from the "donor" are that much more unforgivable.

Now, before any pharm reps or industry people get all excited, let me say that I know that most of you are donating appropriate drugs to appropriate countries for those with appropriate needs. Heck, I'll even give you a pass on sending out expired drugs, as the jury is still out on whether these drugs have really expired or the drug companies are simply covering their capsule-coated rears. But true drug dumping isn't about just expiration dates and appropriate response; it's life and death stuff.

Normally, this sort of thing happens in Third-World countries, but let's try to bring the issue home for a minute with a "what-if" scenario. Remember the chaos at the Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina? Let's say that China had sent over a tea beverage containing an ingredient already outlawed in that country because of its adverse health reactions. Do you think in the midst of the Katrina chaos that 1) there was a system in place where doctors or pharmacists or any type of health-care workers were ready to inspect aid packages and determine which were or weren't appropriate; and that 2) once word got out that food and beverages in the area were available that anything or anyone could have gotten between the needy and the aid? Doubtful.

Then there's the language issue. Pretend we're still in the Astrodome, and a drug that will prevent, say, tetanus has been shipped over complete with handy instructions and dosage information booklets sent along — in Japanese. Helpful, huh?

Thankfully, efforts by the World Heath Organization (WHO), along with legislation passed by nations across the globe, are helping to stop many of these abuses and right some wrongs. Some . . . but not all.

For example, appetite stimulants are being sent to the famine-stricken Sudan, and worming medicine meant for animals has temporarily blinded women elsewhere in Africa. The most recent international disaster that brought the issue to light was the tsunami that wiped out Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004. One pharmaceutical company actually sent diet drugs and breast implants. Let that sink in for a while.

So, what to do? First, as I said, not all big drug companies are the bad guys. But just to make sure we're all on the up and up, let's make the companies who ship aid to disaster areas and Third-World countries be required to register what and how much of each product is sent. The WHO, not the government, should have the final say on what counts as a legitimate donation.

Finally, let's not cheapen charity by allowing companies to rid themselves of unwanted products with a monetary incentive. 

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