updated 10/6/2004 11:11:56 AM ET 2004-10-06T15:11:56

A task force led by the U.S. Surgeon General is still drafting its report on drug importation, but one conclusion is already clear: Savvy shoppers can find cheaper prescription drugs in American pharmacies.

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The new cost comparison by the task force found that “if patients will shop around they, very often, can beat the Canadian price,” William Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for policy and planning, said Tuesday, providing a first glimpse of one of the task force’s early conclusions.

For years the drug regulatory agency, which is part of the 13-member task force, has said it questions the safety of Canadian prescription drug purchases that are growing in popularity among Americans.

In a telephone briefing with reporters on Tuesday, the FDA switched strategy, questioning the perceived cost savings of Canadian drugs.

While revealing the task force’s general conclusion that imported drugs aren’t always a bargain, Hubbard noted that the agency has begun its own comparison shopping, using a CanadaRx drug shipment intercepted by U.S. customs agents in Miami. The 439 packages contained 881 drugs with invoices showing how much Americans consumers paid.

Of 10 of the most common drugs in the intercepted shipment, Amiodarone was among the most striking contradictions, Hubbard said. Buying 100 of the 200 milligram versions of the drug, used to correct rapid heartbeat, from CanadaRx cost $116.97. Buying that same prescription from an American drug store, like Costco or Walgreen Co., cost $41.89, Hubbard said.

A “dirt cheap” diuretic used to treat hypertension cost $13 to order from Canada and $15 to ship. The generic drug’s price at a corner drug store: $5.

“That kind of example is borderline ridiculous,” Hubbard said.

Fully half of the intercepted drugs had generic equivalents that were cheaper in the United States and were approved by the FDA, he said.

The agency will complete its cost analysis of all 881 drugs in the intercepted shipment in the coming weeks, Hubbard said. A safety analysis, however, sounds less likely since testing the drugs costs $5,000.

Among the issues the task force is considering is the potential economic impact of legalizing American purchases of Canadian prescription drugs.

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