Sen. Joe Manchin wants the Kroger supermarket chain to take tougher steps to limit the sale of cold medications that fuel illegal methamphetamine labs in West Virginia.
On Monday, Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was “extremely disappointed” that Kroger didn’t follow the lead of some competitors that barred sales of cold medicines that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient.
Meth cooks typically prefer the single-ingredient products, such as Sudafed 24 Hour, because they’re cheaper and yield potent meth without byproducts.
“I am so disappointed that Kroger has failed to address this [meth lab] problem proactively by refusing to terminate sales of the cold medicines most frequently used to make meth,” Manchin said. “I truly hope Kroger reconsiders its decision.”
Kroger notified the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy last week that it plans to tighten monthly purchase limits of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, but the company said it wouldn’t stop selling the single-ingredient products because they’re a “legal and effective medication.” Kroger’s decision followed talks with Manchin’s office earlier this summer.
Kroger has 40 stores with pharmacies in West Virginia.
“We seriously considered all of Senator Manchin’s requests. However, we respectfully disagree that it is necessary to entirely ban single-ingredient [pseudoephedrine] medicines,” Kroger spokesman Carl York said Monday. “We believe that would hurt law-abiding West Virginia families who need this legal medicine to control their symptoms from allergies and respiratory infections.”
Manchin noted that West Virginia consumers still can buy tamper-resistant products, such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which have pseudoephedrine as their only ingredient. Those medications are extremely difficult to convert into meth.
Manchin said he was working with state lawmakers in West Virginia to outlaw Sudafed and other single-ingredient generic versions that aren’t tamper-resistant.
“The fact that single-ingredient pseudoephedrine is legal to sell has little to do with the simple truth that it is being used overwhelmingly by meth abusers,” Manchin said.
In July, CVS announced it would no longer sell medications that solely contain pseudoephedrine at its 50 West Virginia stores and at other stores in neighboring states that are within 15 miles of the West Virginia border. Rite Aid, Fruth Pharmacy and Walgreens also have stopped selling single-ingredient pseudoephedrine cold products in West Virginia.
“These other companies have demonstrated that they want to be good corporate neighbors by implementing these policies,” Manchin said. “It is unfortunate and disappointing that Kroger has decided to remain on the outside by continuing to sell single-ingredient pseudoephedrine, which is primarily used for making meth.”
CVS, Rite Aid, Fruth and Walgreens still carry cold and allergy medications, such as Claritin-D, Allegra-D and Zyrtec-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with antihistamines and pain relievers. Those medicines can be used to make meth. Last month, the state pharmacy board reported that about 70 percent of people recently arrested for operating meth labs had purchased multi-ingredient pseudoephedrine products.
Also Monday, Manchin sharply criticized Kroger for refusing to tighten yearly purchase limits on pseudoephedrine.
Kroger agreed last week to limit customer purchases of pseudoephedrine to 3.6 grams per month. That’s about one or two boxes, depending on the brand. West Virginia law allows people to purchase 7.2 grams a month.
But Kroger, unlike CVS and other competitors, didn’t set a stricter yearly limit.
CVS, for instance, won’t allow customers to buy more than 24 grams, or about 10 boxes, of pseudoephedrine each year. State law allows 48 grams per year.
At 3.6 grams a month, Kroger customers could buy 43.2 grams a year.
Law enforcement agencies seized 207 meth labs across the state over the first six months of this year. Police seized a record 530 meth labs in 2013.
A bill that would have required a prescription to buy pseudoephedrine — both single-ingredient and multi-symptom brands — died on the final night of this year’s regular session after time ran out on an agreement between the House and Senate.
In recent months, Manchin has met with drugstore chain executives, prodding them to restrict sales of the cold medications used to make meth.
Manchin said the tougher restrictions would help curb West Virginia’s “drug abuse epidemic.”
“Too many West Virginians have struggled with addiction, too many families have been torn apart, and too many lives have been lost to these substances,” Manchin said. “It is past time that we take strong, direct action to stop this cycle of abuse.”
Bridget Lambert, executive director of the West Virginia Retailers Association, said drugstores recognize the state’s meth problem and have “stepped up” to fight it.
“We’re on the front lines,” Lambert said. “Our members look at customer needs, the communities they serve and the laws of West Virginia before they make their decisions. Sudafed is not only sold to meth criminals; it’s sold to even more people who are law-abiding citizens.”
Kroger pharmacies sold more than 40,000 boxes of cold medications with pseudoephedrine last year, behind Rite Aid, Walmart and CVS.
Talks between Manchin’s office and Walmart remain ongoing, a Manchin spokesman said.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @EricEyre on Twitter.