The groups, claiming to represent 10 million Canadians, or about one-third the population, called on the Canadian government Monday to ban prescription drug exports.
They argue that Canada cannot afford to address U.S. drug shortages and soaring prescription costs with its own stock, which are often considerably cheaper for Americans because of government price controls.
An estimated 65 million Americans, most elderly, don't have drug coverage or can't afford drugs in the United States. Internet pharmacies and Canadian doctors willing to write prescriptions for Americans send an estimated $1 billion a year in Canadian drugs south of the border.
"It is completely untenable to think that Canada could supply their needs and our own for even one month, let along on an ongoing basis," said Louise Binder of the Canadian Treatment Action Council and Best Medicines Coalition.
Binder said she has heard that in Winnipeg, Manitoba, there is a shortage of desperately needed cancer drugs that are readily available to American consumers through Internet pharmacies based in Canada.
But Canada's health department insists Americans don't pose a threat to the country's drug supply. For example, Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said Monday he believes Canada has a surplus of vaccine that could be provided to the United States, though probably not enough to meet the U.S. demand.
The United States is grappling with a shortage of flu vaccine after contamination problems prevented a major supplier in England from shipping.
Canada regulates drug prices as part of its national health care system, while the market dictates pricing in the United States. Many popular medications for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be bought in Canada at less than half the U.S. price.
Earlier this month, Illinois and Wisconsin started state-sponsored programs to help residents buy cheaper prescription drugs from both Europe and Canada. Several states, seeing the potential for huge savings in the costs of insuring employees, have Web sites designed to help citizens buy Canadian medications. Also, visitors to Canada can buy as much as three months of medication in Canada for personal use with a U.S. prescription.
U.S.-based drug makers Pfizer Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP and Wyeth have cut supplies to some Canadian pharmacies when they suspected orders were too large for the Canadian market and were being sold to Americans.
Lothar Dueck, president of the Coalition for Manitoba Pharmacy, said he is under restrictions by U.S. drug companies and often must call colleagues to scrounge enough medicine to fill prescriptions for his customers in Vita near the U.S. border. Recently he ran out of Imuran, a drug used to treat immune system deficiencies such as lupus.
"I don't want to see our health system decimated by forcing Canadians to compete with Americans for our drug supply," Dueck said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes commercial prescription drug imports, arguing that it cannot vouch for their safety.
Binder said Canada's reputation could be on the line if drugs imported from countries where quality cannot be verified, such as China, Iran, India and Thailand, cause problems after being resold to the United States.
Jeff Poston, executive director of the Canadian Pharmacists Association, also expressed concerns about safety.
"Drugs are a therapy; they should not be treated as a commodity to be bought from anywhere in the world at the cheapest price," Poston said.
Binder objected to the argument of U.S. drug companies that cheaper Canadian drugs don't help pay for expensive research and development.
"Most R&D is started by the government and when it becomes lucrative, the patent rights are bought up by the drug companies," Binder said.
Chuck Cruden of the Manitoba Society of Seniors said Canadian doctors should be treating Canadians instead of selling their signatures to "co-sign" American prescriptions.
"The United States is the richest country in the world," Cruden said. "They are more than capable of solving this problem on their own. Canada is too small and our drug supply is too small to solve America's problem."
By Colin McClelland