Banned Products, Available in Poor Countries

(Photo: Steve Snodgrass)

In a recent Harry Hole mystery novel The Leopard, Jo Nesbø (an economist as well as novelist) has Harry ask someone, “Where would you go to get it [a particular anesthetic] now?” and is answered, “Ex-Soviet states. Or Africa….The producer sells it at bargain-basement prices since the European ban, so it ends up in poor countries.” When rich countries ban something, they increase its supply to poor countries that refuse to ban it.  Prices are lowered to consumers there.  Rich countries’ safety is enhanced, poor countries’ worsened, with the only consolation that consumers in poor countries become able to obtain the harmful substance at lower prices.  Are people in each country better off, worse off, or what?

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  1. Sergey K. says:

    Could you, please, provide any real example of such products/brands?
    Abstract thoughts, nothing more.

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    • Travis says:

      I don’t know about pharma chemicals, but this is demonstrably true with respect to Pesticides which are banned in the US or EU, and has been studied for some time.

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    • jay says:

      My father takes Thalidomide for multiple myeloma. It is only available in North America by jumping through hoops, but can apparently be purchased in Mexico and Brazil. Not banned, per se, but very difficult to get.

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  2. Jason Steele says:

    Well, the makers of Asbestos have rebranded it as Chrysotile and now sell it in such poor places as India. So if you consider lung cancer a bad thing, then I’d say the poorer countries as worse off. But hey, the rich countries are better off, because they don’t have an insulation that causes cancer, and the makers in Canada get to make money off the dead they create!

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 15
    • James says:

      Helps to start by getting facts straight. First, nobody “makes” asbestos, any more than they make granite or marble. It’s a naturally occuring mineral, which is mined. Second, chrysotile is not a brand, it’s one of the several mineral sub-types of asbestos.

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      • Ian Allen says:

        Dead, dead dead wrong. As a resident of a town with dead asbestos factories, you know not of what you speak. Minerals must be processed into usable form, killing untold thousands only now from the work they did in my youth and earlier. asbestos was only banned in UK in 1998, Facts indeed! Harrumph!

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  3. Steve says:

    Few, if any substances worth marketing for human consumption, are *absolutely* “harmful”. The question should be: “Is the level of acceptable risk decreed by our FDA, or its European equivalent, universally applicable?” Safety is not the only value; and “safety” is actually a basket of “safeties”. While safety from, say, cancer or heart disease, may be an appropriate priority in the U.S. and Europe, safety from more immediate dangers, say, infection or hunger, may be a priority elsewhere.

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    • Daniel G says:

      Agreed. Much also depends on the type of good. For instance, in the case of asbestos, a ban in a rich country might increase welfare in poor countries, since the ban could stimulate people (regulators included) to find information and make better informed decisions about the relative risks of fire and lung cancer while simultaneously driving down price. On the other hand, a decrease in the price of cocaine wouldn’t have the same welfare-increasing properties since cocaine is addictive, the lower price would likely increase the incidence of addictions, and we can’t really consider the choice of an addict to be free or welfare-increasing.

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      • Joby Elliott says:

        I think you misunderstand how addiction works. It’s not an economic cost-benefit analysis done by a rational actor. I don’t think a lower price of cocaine would do much at all to reduce its rate of addiction.

        If anything it might be welfare increasing overall, by reducing the black market around the drug, and by attracting addicts from cheaper more harmful drugs, like crack (which, incidentally, rose as a cheaper alternative to cocaine). Not to mention the fact that a lower price would reduce the economic consequences to the addicts themselves, reducing the likelihood that they will need to resort to desperate criminal measures in support of their addiction.

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      • SammyD says:

        So addicts don’t make economic cost-benefit decisions and don’t respond to incentives?

        The numbers disagree.

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  4. Jimbo says:

    Perhaps the safety in poor countries is not worsened. Rich countries often have the luxury of alternatives. A drug may have a bad side effect, but the drug with the side-effect will probably have an overall net positive – hence why it was initially passed in the rich countries. It seems unlikely that a product could be excessively bad if it manages to pass through product testing and make it to market in the US. I wouldn’t want to use some of these medications and products, but that’s because I have alternatives.

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    • Joby Elliott says:

      That’s all well and mostly true for drugs. Not so much for other products.

      Lead-infused toys for example. They’re cheap, and fill a need…but are they really better on the whole than kids in poor countries playing with sticks and rocks or fewer, less toxic toys? Probably not.

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  5. scot phelps says:

    You are generally wrong that “poor countries’ (safety is) worsened”, because risk is a relative concept. Many medicines “banned” in developed nations may be more harmful than the best available alternative, BUT they may be better than the alternatives realistically available. US policy RARELY takes cost:benefit analysis into account.

    Two better questions are: 1. is the drug actually better or worse than the alternatives, or is the marketing just better (see e.g., Amiodarone, which at hundreds of dollars a dose has replaced cheap, generic epinephrine as one of the primary treatments for cardiac arrest therapy WITHOUT any demonstrable increase in survival to discharge from the hospital), and; 2. Is the reason for the ban REAL or is it just a cultural problem- we ban lots of reasonable innocuous things in the US, such as marijuana, while keeping pretty harmful things, such as alcohol, legal.

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    • Travis says:

      Just a slight correction. The FDA is actually not allowed to consider cost in approval of pharmaceuticals. In essence, the FDA can deny an application only based on safety and effectiveness, a lack of data submitted by the applicant, misleading labeling proposals, or other data / information being missing from the application.

      Also, Marijuana is banned not as a pharmaceutical substance but as a narcotic under various drug laws.

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  6. Eric M. Jones. says:

    On the whole I suspect that rich countries suffer and poor countries benefit–because it is usually not that the banned substances are harmful, it is that the companies cannot afford the liability and lawsuits that occur when a substance is imperfect. Are tropical nations better with or without DDT?

    I recognize that lawyers and lawsuits and the FDA are frequently beneficial (we all remember Thalidomide)–but they may also place an unrealistic burden on companies to produce impossible perfection. Viz:

    In New England tick-borne Lyme Disease is rampant, yet there is a vaccine that was proved to be effective but was discontinued by the makers (the story goes) due to lawsuits that were probably not justified. The anti-vaccination nuts were rampant at the time.

    But your dog and cat and horse can get the vaccine, so some people get their vaccine on the sly at their vets. Woof.

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    • warwick says:

      DDT has been VERY effective in malaria reduction in South Africa. Use has been modified to a short burst on an unpainted wall inside a hut, not the mass spraying that caused the food chain problems in the past…

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  7. Andreas Moser says:

    I just moved to an ex-Soviet state – – but it is also part of the EU. The quote doesn’t seem to allow for that possibility, so I am confused as to whether I should offer my services in supplying drugs that are banned in other countries.

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  8. joey steele says:

    one word, one letter. preparation h.

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