Shady at Best, Dangerous to Patients at Worst | Parallel Importation

By: Alex Thiersch

As you no doubt are well aware, botulinum toxin treatments—primarily Botox, but also including competitors such as Dysport and Xeomin—are among the most popular procedures in the medical aesthetic industry. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), more than 4.25 million of these treatments were administered in the United States in 2015, for a total expenditure of more than $1.35 billion—the most of any cosmetic procedure, surgical or otherwise. At an average of $317 per treatment, botulinum toxin is affordable for patients, yet still quite profitable for practices. But some want more, and they are beginning to put themselves in danger in the pursuit of larger profits.

One of the ways in which practices are attempting to do this is by buying cheap, usually counterfeit botulinum toxin from other countries, most prominently China. These drugs are not particularly difficult to procure on the Internet if you know where to look and, to some medical aesthetic practices, this represents a way to avoid paying the name-brand premium that legitimate botulinum toxin carries, such as Botox.

While this is shady at best, and dangerous to patients at worst, historically it tended to be fairly easy to get away with. Recently, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stepped up the enforcement of its statutes (fake botulinum toxin is not FDA approved, of course), seizing these drugs at the border and handing down criminal charges against those in the United States who are complicit in their importation, such as the practices that order it.

This enforcement effort has proven to be extremely controversial. “It’s caused quite a bit of angst,” said Michael Byrd, partner for ByrdAdatto, a national business and healthcare law firm based in Dallas. “There’s a lot of unhappiness, even within the governmental agency [FDA]—they refer to themselves in a derogatory manner as the ‘Botox police’ or the ‘Allergan police.’”

FDA agents may feel like their strings are being pulled by a corporation, but this is also unquestionably a matter of maintaining the health of the botulinum toxin-using public.

“Those who are against it say that it’s really just action on behalf of Allergan for Allergan to keep their prices [high]. Those who are for it, as you might suspect, point to patient welfare.”
-Michael Byrd, partner for ByrdAdatto 

Regardless, enforcement has increased, and the charges you can incur as a result of being caught with counterfeit botulinum toxin are very serious. If your owner or operator is found guilty of them, they could theoretically serve jail time in addition to facing heavy fines and the suspension of their medical licenses.

Medical aesthetic practices have also attempted to purchase less expensive botulinum toxin treatments by engaging in a practice called “parallel importation,” whereby a licensed foreign entity purchases legitimate US-produced drugs at a lower rate than US-based distributors (due to local price controls) and then resell them to US-based practices for far less than it would typically cost for the practices to procure them from domestic sources. The US Supreme Court broadly upheld the legality of this practice in the case of Kirtsaeng vs. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2013), although that particular case related to textbooks, not prescription drugs. As such, there are still some grey areas involving FDA compliance that make this practice risky, despite the fact that every step of the process seems to respect the laws of both the country in which the outlet is located and the United States.

“Enforcement typically stems from an employee, patient, or American industry representative reporting a foreign label on the product. Because the labeling is different on legitimate US products purchased by a foreign entity, practices engaging in parallel importation are also being reported,” explains Byrd. “When I counsel my medical spa or cosmetic practice clients, [I tell them] you have to recognize the risk that comes with any effort to utilize parallel importation. Even if a client is ultimately not found guilty of wrongdoing, an enormous business cost comes with losing inventory in a raid, legal costs to defend the action, and the business disruption that comes with an enforcement action. There is, of course, also risk regarding the legality of the use of parallel importation for prescription drugs. And so, my counsel would be that if you do anything other than buy an FDA-approved and US-distributed product, you have to recognize both of these risks.”

For now, it is probably best not to engage in parallel importation, but it is entirely possible that in the near future, it will be a viable way to purchase FDA-approved products.

AmSpa provides a variety of legal and regulatory resources for medical aesthetic practices and medical spas to help you stay legal and compliant. Learn more about our member benefits here

This article originally appeared in the December issue of Modern Aesthetics.

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