Cold medicine used in meth bought by 12 percent
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Drug industry lobbyists say a proposal to require a prescription for some cold medications used to make illegal methamphetamine would inconvenience large numbers of law-abiding West Virginians who need the decongestant.
But supporters of the prescription requirement say new drug sales data shows most West Virginians aren't buying pseudoephedrine products such as Sudafed and Claritin-D.
Twelve percent of West Virginians bought pseudoephedrine last year, according to data obtained by The Charleston Gazette. And just 2 percent of West Virginians bought three boxes or more.
"For [lobbyists] to say it's affecting all these customers, and that's why legislators shouldn't support this bill, well, now, they can't really say that with these numbers," said Mike Goff, an administrator at the state Board of Pharmacy. "A large percentage of folks aren't affected. It certainly doesn't help their case."
Elizabeth Funderburk, a spokeswoman for a trade group that represents drug makers in Washington, D.C., said many West Virginians still "would be inconvenienced and incur significant and unnecessary costs" if the Legislature passed a prescription requirement.
"A prescription mandate would be very significant for the nearly 1 in 10 cold and allergy sufferers in West Virginia," said Funderburk, who works for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, has introduced legislation (SB6) that would bar pharmacies from selling pseudoephedrine unless customers had a prescription. The bill exempts two pseudoephedrine brands, Nexafed and Zephrex D, which can't easily be converted to meth.
Tucker and others believe making pseudoephedrine prescription-only would reduce illegal meth production in West Virginia.
Last year, police seized more than 530 meth labs statewide, nearly twice as many as in 2012.
"It's a plague," Tucker said last week after introducing his bill.
Under federal law, pharmacies can sell pseudoephedrine only to customers 18 years of age and older. However, parents sometimes buy the cold medication for their children.
The Gazette calculated that 12 percent of West Virginians bought pseudoephedrine at least once last year, based on the state's population of residents 18 and older.
Goff noted the percentage gets even smaller -- 9 percent of West Virginians purchased pseudoephedrine -- if you take into account the state's entire population.
"I didn't realize so few people were buying Sudafed," Goff said. "The numbers are really low."
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has recommended that the state reduce the amount of pseudoephedrine that pharmacies could sell to customers annually -- from about 20 boxes to 10 boxes per year. The reduction would match Kentucky's yearly limit.
The pharmacy board has supported reducing annual pseudoephedrine limits -- if the prescription bill doesn't pass. But the board's director, David Potters, said the new sales data show that cutting yearly limits in half may not get to the root of West Virginia's meth lab problem.
"The largest percentage of purchasers would be completely unaffected by that gram limit," a reduction from 48 to 24 grams per year, Potters said. "The board supports prescription-only as the most effective choice given the low percentage of people who purchased pseudoephedrine last year."
Goff suggested the yearly limit could be dropped to 7.2 grams, about the amount in three boxes.
"You shouldn't take it every day anyway, and if you do, you should go see a doctor," Goff said. "For three sinus conditions a year, that would be plenty."
Funderburk said her group supports a 7.2-gram limit -- but thinks people should be able to buy that much every month, not every year.
"[That] fits the needs of chronic allergy sufferers by allowing [them] to take the FDA-approved maximum dose in 30 days, and families where multiple family members rely on these medicines for relief," she said.
Goff and Potters said meth cooks often hire "smurfers" to buy pseudoephedrine for them, skirting monthly and yearly limits.
The Gazette obtained the 2013 sales data, taken from a pseudoephedrine tracking system called NPLEx, after filing a request under the state Freedom of Information Act. The sales data show that about 4,000 to 5,000 West Virginians are buying the bulk of pseudoephedrine sold by pharmacies each year.
"About 30 percent of purchasers bought more than two-thirds of all pseudoephedrine sold," Potters said.
Pharmacies now keep pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Customers must show a photo ID to buy the cold medication.
Funderburk said a prescription requirement would increase doctor's office appointments and exacerbate a shortage of doctors in West Virginia's rural areas. Also, meth production remains a problem in Oregon and Mississippi -- the only two states that have pseudoephedrine prescription laws, she said.
As an alternative, Funderburk's lobbying group backs legislation that establishes a "meth-offender registry" and bars criminals convicted of meth-related crimes from purchasing pseudoephedrine.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.