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A retired insurance man and drug kingpin, of sorts

54-year-old CanaRx chief part salesman, part activist

As he drove across Ohio, the Canadian drug importer G. Anthony Howard reveled in his newfound outlaw status. He was riding with his son, Robert, and an associate, Joseph Todd, all participants in the drug business, all the subject of cease-and-desist letters from the US Food and Drug Administration.

What better time for the US authorities to stage an arrest, Howard wisecracked in a cellphone conversation with a reporter.

"They could get all three of us," he said cheerfully.

Howard, 54, retired insurance executive, self-styled millionaire, and onetime owner of racehorses, is president of CanaRx Services Inc., an Internet-based operation that sells low-cost Canadian prescription drugs to Americans. His best-known customers are municipal employees in Springfield, whose health plan uses Canadian drugs to cut costs in defiance of the FDA.

Part traveling salesman, part social activist, Howard spends countless hours in rental cars and hotel rooms, traveling around the United States to meet with seniors and local government officials. He tells them that they are being gouged by multinational drug companies.

"The United States of America pays a ridiculous price, and the seniors carry the burden, and it's wrong," Howard, clutching a microphone, told elderly residents at a Springfield union hall recently.

This new line of work carries risks. Where he used to fill his car with Christmas gift baskets for his insurance clients, now he personally transports prescription drugs across the Detroit River into the United States, a practice the FDA says is illegal. He fears that he may someday have to stay out of the United States to avoid arrest. Anticipating potential property seizures by the US government, Howard and his wife, Gloria, recently sold their $525,000 beachfront condo in Fort Myers, Fla.

Citing the risks of regulatory action or retaliation by drug companies, Howard is closed-mouth about many aspects of his business, including the identities of his network of Canadian doctors or pharmacies.

"I love America. I don't want to be a Canadian that can't come back here," Howard said, growing more serious in the telephone interview. "But we will not stop shipping medications to Americans. The only way that is going to happen is if I go to jail."

The FDA put Howard in its crosshairs after he signed a deal in July with Mayor Michael Albano of Springfield to provide prescription drugs from Canada to as many as 18,000 Springfield municipal employees, retirees, and family members. Albano estimates that 1,100 have signed up so far. The first municipal program of its kind, it could save Springfield $4 million to $9 million a year.

Howard and Albano -- joining many Canadians, US consumers and members of Congress -- say the medicine shipped from Canadian pharmacies is perfectly safe, identical to drugs sold in the United States.

They paint the US ban on foreign drugs as a form of price protection for drug companies, which have contributed tens of millions of dollars in campaign money each year, mostly to Republicans.

On the other side are the FDA and the drug industry, who counter that Howard and other Canadian prescription vendors present a public health threat and that foreign prescriptions pose risks of counterfeit or adulterated drugs reaching US consumers.

After conducting a sting against CanaRx last month, in which it said it received an unrefrigerated vial of insulin in the mail, the FDA last week sent its warning letters, threatening civil sanctions unless Howard and his family and associates shut down.

"Whether Mr. Howard is sincere in his goals and trying to do good for mankind, or just someone trying to make a buck, is besides the point," William K. Hubbard, FDA associate commissioner for planning and policy, said in an interview. He said the CanaRx operation is "full of holes" and violates laws on both sides of the border.

US law prohibits the importation of drugs from foreign sources, but the FDA has winked at household Internet orders and personal prescriptions carried across the border from Canadian pharmacies, which reached an estimated $700 million in 2002.

In Ontario, provincial regulations say physicians must personally examine patients before writing a prescription -- something that is impossible in the Internet trade. Ontario officials are reviewing CanaRX operations but would not comment further. "We're looking into it," said Deanna Williams, the registrar for the Ontario College of Pharmacists.Dressed in a dark suit, his gray hair trimmed short, Howard hardly fits the stereotype of social revolutionary. He looks like the retired insurance executive he is. Friends and relatives, including his wife, who helps run CanaRX, described Howard as methodical and driven. His father was in the military, his mother a schoolteacher, raising him in Windsor and sending him to the University of Windsor, where he and Gloria graduated together in 1972. Howard went straight to work at a Chrysler plant on the Canadian side of the border, supervising the manufacture of Chrysler Cordovas and K-cars. In 1981, he started his own property and life insurance business, naming it after himself, G. Anthony Howard & Associates. He worked long hours.

"He would come into the office at 5 o'clock in the morning and wait for the rest of us to show up at 8:30, and he would already have a whole pile of stuff to do on our desks," said James Holland, who became a partner in the business and later bought out Howard's share. The business really took off in the late 1980s, when Howard branched into group medical coverage and landed some big accounts, including the City of Windsor, with 2,000 employees, and Windsor's mass transit system.

But the driving pace and his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit caught up with him at age 38, when he suffered his first heart attack, Howard said. After the second attack six years later, his doctor told him to sell his business ventures. In early retirement, he got his golf handicap down to an 8, but was bored, friends said. "I don't believe that he really enjoyed his retirement. He's a type A personality. He's the type of guy who's got to get it done," said friend and former client Robert King, president of Unique Tool & Gauge Inc.

Howard first recognized the business opportunities in Canadian drugs in the late 1990s, when he bought medicine for a neighbor at a condominium complex in Phoenix. While most Canadian Internet pharmacies stockpile drugs and sell them directly to consumers, Howard saw that he could set himself up as a middleman and administrator.

He took on some doctors and pharmacists as partners and incorporated last year. So far, his operation is filling about 200 orders a day, he said. He remains optimistic, with contracts with enough Canadian pharmacies to handle more than 7,000 prescriptions daily. He said he just poured another $190,000 of his own money into the business. And he keeps talking to his lawyers about how to stay one step ahead of the FDA. Ultimately, he said he expects Congress will remove the prohibitions on Canadian imports, allowing his business to explode -- legally.

"I have heavily subsidized this to the point where my wife is upset, but I will continue to do this," he said. "How often can a person make a difference? I'm just a Canadian -- a normal, average Canadian."

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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