Published: October, 1999
Thousands of Americans cross the border every year in order to save a great deal of money buying prescription drugs. This is a major industry, and total sales to foreigners exceeds two hundred million dollars annually. Despite these numbers, however, too many Americans have little or no information about purchasing prescription drugs in Mexico.
First and foremost: Mexico is a stable, regulated Republic with established rules and laws regulating drug manufacturing, distribution and sales. Counterfeit drugs are extremely rare, but alternative brands of drugs are quite common.
There are two 'classes' of farmacias (pharmacies). The most common is sequnda clase (second class), which is allowed to sell all but regulated medicines. Pharmacies that sell controlled or regulated drugs are referred to as primera clase. Controlled medicines are those that are deemed as having a high potential for abuse, such as Tarpon®, Valium® and anabolic steroids. If the word 'controlado'' is used, it means that the drug is controlled and you can not buy it over the counter without a prescription from a recognized and registered Mexican doctor.
Check with your U.S. pharmacy before you leave home and ask your druggist if your medications are "class II or class III or class IV". If any of them are designated class II, III or IV, then you can be assured that you'll need a prescription to buy them in Mexico.
Drugs that are considered contralado are monitored by a federal agency called Sector Salud. If druggists are caught selling medicinas contralados without a prescription, Sector Salud can fine them, pull their business license or even put them in jail. The same conditions hold true for doctors that over-prescribe controlled medicines or prescribe inappropriate medicines such as anabolic steroids. If a doctor loses his federal registration number, he is branded an 'outlaw' and might as well take up truck driving for a living.
Check With Your Doctor!
You should first call your U.S. doctor to ask permission to purchase Mexican medicines. If you receive an emphatic "NO!", reconsider your effort. Some heart rhythm drugs, for instance, are so sensitive that different brand names of the same chemical in the same dosage react differently in the same person. On the other hand, if your needs aren't so sensitive, such as for arthritis drugs, antibiotics or asthma inhalants, you may want to consider playing the part of 'The Aware Consumer' and forge ahead.
If you decide to buy prescription drugs in Mexico, ask your U.S. pharmacist to provide you with a tiny brochure called a 'package insert' that is attached to all bottles of U.S. wholesale medicines. This insert has exactly the same information listed in a huge reference book called Physician's Desk Reference (or PDR). The package insert contains an enormous amount of information about the medicine, including its generic name, dosage formulations and other information.
Make Sure You Get The Correct Drugs
When you hand this insert to a counter person in a Mexican pharmacy, they can cross reference the names and dosages, and provide a sample for your approval. The counter person is experienced in identifying generic names and equivalences, (example: erthyromycin, nambumetone, prednisone, etc.) and by crossing the name over to, perhaps, a 'Latinized' version of the same generic medicine, the consumer will end up with an acceptable alternative.
If you end up purchasing medicine that doesn't feel 'quite right', then don't take it without consulting your U.S. doctor. Whatever you do, forget about playing the part of Albert Schweitzer and prescribing your own formulas. Also, don't rely on the advice of the person behind the counter. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they have no medical training ? they are salespeople. Prescription drugs are regulated in the United States because they are so powerful. They can be potentially deadly if used improperly or paired with an incorrect, conflicting drug.
I feel comfortable purchasing medicines that are identical in name and dosage to their American counterpart. For instance, Nabumetone is sold under the trademark name of Relafen by Smith Kline, Beecham here in the U.S. In Mexico, this medicine is still Nabumetone, but the name has been latinized to 'Relifex', and the manufacturer (Beecham) is recognizable as being part of the familiar U.S. name.
Another common drug is Pepcid which is actually Famotidine and is manufactured by Merck, Sharpe & Dahme. In Mexico the identical Famotidine is Latinized to 'Pepcidine' and has a prominent 'MSD' as a trademark.
By recognizing that drugs have two names, one being a trademark and the other a generic, you can see that the generic name is the critical one. This is the reason that you'll want the 'package insert' along to corroborate your comparisons. In addition, be absolutely certain that the Mexican drug contains only the identical ingredient(s) and in the identical dose(s) to its U.S. counterpart (with no added ingredients or chemicals).
Getting A Mexican Prescription
You may find yourself wondering how to find a doctor that is authorized to write legal prescriptions for controlled medicines. The best way is to first find a first class pharmacy and then ask the supervisor for the name and telephone number of a doctor that they know and trust. Usually their 'recommended' doctor is within a block or two of the pharmacy.
If you need a large amount of controlled medicine, you will find that most doctors will balk at the idea of issuing prescriptions for more than one hundred tablets; even then they may write two different prescriptions for fifty tablets each and tell you to purchase the other prescription at a different pharmacy. Be sure to ask the doctor to telephone the pharmacy and confirm the fact that they do have the medicine on the shelf. It can be frustrating to go through the trouble of finding a doctor and paying him (commonly, twenty dollars) to write a prescription, only to find that the pharmacy is out of stock.
It would be wise to provide the doctor with a recent U.S. pill bottle, showing that you are under the care of a U.S. doctor.
Have the farmacia make a photocopy of the prescription (this is a very common practice) and keep it with you. If you are asked to provide proof of purchase at U.S. Customs, this receipt can save you a lot of time.
Always declare all of your medicines to U.S. Customs when asked to do so. They may ask you the nature of the prescriptions and who they are for. You are not allowed to bring any medicines into the U.S. that are not for your own personal consumption. This includes both controlled and uncontrolled medicines. It is a misdemeanor to fail to declare all medicines when asked to do so. Only drug smugglers have to worry when they declare their medicines. ("Oh, by the way, I stashed a gallon jug of codeine tablets in the trunk.")
Is It Worth It?
How much savings can you expect? It varies. Most antibiotics are about half the cost of their U.S. counterparts. Many stomach medicines may cost one third as much (saving you about two bucks per dose), while a few antibiotics (such as Ciprofloxacin) cost more than they do in the U.S. A few medicines are not available (such as plaquenil). It is quite common to save a thousand dollars for six month's worth of drugs, if your total bill normally exceeds two thousand dollars.
You will see quite a number of fellow Americans waiting in line to buy their prescriptions too. It is not a scary or spooky adventure. Afterwards, use some of your savings for a lobster dinner!
First printed in The People's Guide Travel Letter #4