Homeland Security color-coded Advisory System

Somewhere North of the Rainbow

I’ve got my own personal Homeland Security color-coded Advisory System. It goes like this:

Green: Doesn’t register
Blue: Doesn’t register
Yellow: Doesn’t register
Orange: TV news reporting quickly becomes annoying
Red: Now you’ve got my attention

Let’s face it; the Green and Blue levels are the refreshing cool color levels to which it seems we may never return. Yellow is where we mostly live these days. We pop up to Orange every now and then, which is where parts of New York City, northern New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., are right now. And Red well, we’ll cross the Red bridge when we get to it (and hopefully never will).

At least one regulatory agency has found a way to put the Advisory System to use. Earlier this month, just a few days after the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level to Orange for the areas mentioned above, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford sat down with The Associated Press to discuss “cues” that had been picked up “from chatter.”

And guess what? It turns out that one potential terrorist target just happens to be an FDA target too!

Bow wow

For many months (or is it years now?), the FDA has been discouraging U.S. citizens from buying their prescription drugs at a lower cost from Canada. This is a sticky political wicket, because most of those who are purchasing the lower-priced drugs tend to be seniors who unfortunately have been led to believe they can’t live without their expensive cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and any number of other prescriptions.

Naturally, no current office holders want to anger this huge block of seniors and lose their votes by strictly enforcing the laws against buying drugs from foreign sources. So the government’s attempts to stop these sales have consisted of mostly barking, with not much bite.

For instance, one of the FDA’s tactics is to send out warning letters to the governors of northern states. Ouch! A LETTER from the FDA. That’s gotta hurt!

The letters are designed to warn about the questionable safety and effectiveness of illegally imported drugs. But the fact that Canadians don’t seem to have a problem with safety and effectiveness of their drugs sort of takes the bite out of those scary letters. Especially because it’s widely known that many of the imported drugs come from the very offshore factories that produce drugs sold in the U.S.

Planting seeds

Then Commissioner Crawford came up with what probably seemed like a good way to make those “questionable” drugs really scary.

He told The Associated Press that he had been briefed about al- Qaida threats that were uncovered by the recent raids in Pakistan and the UK. When he was asked if the briefing revealed terrorist plans to contaminate food or drugs, Crawford said that he would have to decline comment.

Very ominous.

So while he didn’t come right out and say it, the point was implied: If you use these illegally imported drugs you may make yourself vulnerable to terrorists. But then in the same article, a spokesman for Homeland Security admits that there is no specific information about any al-Qaida threats to food or drugs.

Bark, bark, bark. No bite.

The lemon caper

Commissioner Crawford tried to sharpen the edge on the terrorist fear by pointing to the Tylenol tampering in 1982 that led to seven deaths. He had to go back more than two decades for that one! And the drugs in question were obviously not imported.

But that’s not all. A few bottles of baby food were recently contaminated in California. No injuries resulted. And a shipment of South American lemons was suspected of being impregnated with a “harmful biological” agent. A combined investigation by the Coast Guard, Homeland Security Department, and the FDA turned up nothing.

Nothing to fear but what we tell you to

If it seems like I’m making light of terrorist dangers, I’m not. Commissioner Crawford says that drug tampering is a source of serious concern, and it should be. But the implication that there’s a specific threat when he knows that no such threat exists, is nothing more than a tactic designed to frighten people out of shopping up north for affordable drugs. I guess the thinking is: If nobody will take our warning letters seriously, maybe terrorism fear will do the trick.

But so far the fear isn’t working. Last week, Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich announced a plan that will help residents of his state purchase drugs from Britain, Ireland and Canada at savings of up to 50 percent over domestic drugs. Other states are pursuing similar plans. An associate commissioner for the FDA told the New York Times that these efforts “will raise serious concerns on the part of the FDA.”

Ooooh. “Serious” concerns. My, my, my. Sounds like someone is getting ready to fire off another one of those warning letters.


“FDA Warns of Terrorist Drug Tampering” The Associated Press, 8/12/04, ap.org
“Illinois State Web Site to Offer Foreign Drugs” Monica Davey, The New York Times, 8/17/04, nytimes.com