The association, a 501(c)(4) group representing thousands of law enforcement officials, has spent more than $500,000 in the past few weeks to air TV ads opposing the importation of prescription drugs, according to FCC filings compiled from OpenSecrets’ political ad database.
The ads, which mostly target adults over the age of 55, have aired in the Washington, D.C., metro area on the local CBS and NBC affiliates, as well as on cable channels including ESPN, HGTV and Fox News. The ad buy included more than 600 spots, including dozens on shows that the president is known to watch, such as Hannity, Fox & Friends and Tucker Carlson Tonight.
“We protect our communities from illegal imported fentanyl and counterfeit pills that often come from other countries,” one ad says. “Opening our borders to foreign drug importation will only increase the threat of counterfeits and escalate this crisis.”
The association has previously cited research sponsored in part by pharmaceutical companies to support these statements. It has also, as recently as at least 2016, received grants from these companies to support some of its operations.
In a hearing in front of the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he had little worry about consumers buying drugs from Canada, but that the agency remained concerned about online pharmacies that purported to be from America’s northern neighbor.
Research on counterfeit drugs from economist Roger Bate, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has found that foreign online pharmacies that are credentialed consistently export safe drugs.
Importing prescription drugs from abroad is illegal in most cases, although surveys suggest that millions of Americans do it anyway. States are allowed to import cheaper drugs from foreign countries, but only if the Department of Health and Human Services verifies their safety.
Trump pledged to lower drug prices during his 2016 presidential campaign and has sought to fulfill this promise during his presidency, though prices have remained mostly the same. On Thursday, the White House backed off a proposal that had been at the centerpiece of its efforts to reduce prices and would have eliminated industry rebates, encouraging drug makers to pass discounts to patients instead.
The president has endorsed importing drugs from countries such as Canada on several occasions, but such a program has yet to be developed at a national level.
The National Sheriffs’ Association adopted a resolution opposing drug importation legislation in July 2017. When the Trump administration proposed a working group to explore safe ways to import drugs in August 2018, the association sent the president a letter outlining its members’ concerns. It argued that allowing imported prescription drugs would likely increase the flow of false or dangerous drugs into the United States and worsen the opioid epidemic.
“Already overburdened law enforcement and regulatory capacity would be unable to ensure a safe prescription drug supply under importation,” the letter said.
The association issued another statement reiterating these concerns this past January, after members of Congress on both sides of the aisle introduced bills that would allow patients and pharmacists to import drugs from Canada and other major countries.
To explain the dangers posed by importation, both the letter from last August and the statement from January cited a study published in June 2017 by the Freeh Group, an international risk management firm. That study was commissioned by the Partnership for Safe Medicines, a 501(c)(6) organization with more than 60 members, according to its website. Those members include both 501(c)(3) nonprofits and other 501(c)(6) groups, such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the premier trade association of pharmaceutical companies and the industry’s largest lobbying group.
The National Sheriffs’ Association, meanwhile, is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, so it is not required to disclose its donors and does not do so voluntarily. According to IRS filings, it raised $7.1 million in revenue from October 2016 through September 2017.
In the past, the association has partnered with pharmaceutical companies for other purposes. In 2016, it received a $350,000 grant from Purdue Pharma to train sheriffs to use naloxone, the opioid-overdose reversal drug, and a grant of an undisclosed amount from biopharmaceutical company Alkermes, Inc. to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic among law enforcement officers.
The association did not return requests for comment as to whether the recent anti-import ad campaign was part of a partnership.
Such 501(c)(4) groups are allowed to engage in political activity, so long as politics do not become their primary activity — a guideline that has been interpreted to mean that up to 49.9 percent of their funds can be spent on politics.
The ads in the sheriffs’ association campaign are classified as issue advocacy ads, since they are political in nature but do not expressly advocate for a candidate. FCC filings list prescription medication as the issue of national importance in each ad.