The Mountain State’s TRUSTED news source.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

Learn more about HD Media

Kroger supermarkets have joined a growing number of retailers in West Virginia that are restricting sales of a cold medication that’s also used to make methamphetamine in clandestine labs.

This week, Kroger agreed to tighten customer purchase limits on products that contain pseudoephedrine, a key meth-making ingredient, according to a letter Kroger executives sent to the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy. The new monthly limits are more restrictive than those under West Virginia law. The change will take effect at Kroger’s 40 pharmacies in West Virginia “in the coming weeks,” the company said.

“We have taken several steps to ensure that we are only selling [pseudoephedrine] products to customers who are using these products for the appropriate health-related uses,” Kroger spokesman Carl York said Wednesday.

Kroger stores also have started to stock so-called “tamper-resistant” pseudoephedrine cold products that can’t be converted into meth.

What’s more, Kroger pharmacists won’t do a “pre-checks” for customers who want to know whether they’ve exceeded their pseudoephedrine purchase limits, the company said. Pharmacy employees have been instructed to turn away “suspicious transactions” — those involving people suspected of buying pseudoephedrine with plans to divert the medicine for illegal use.

Kroger stopped short of barring sales of cold medications that have pseudoephedrine as their only active ingredient — a change that several competing pharmacies have enacted in West Virginia. Meth makers typically prefer the single-ingredient products.

“Single-ingredient [pseudoephedrine] is a legal and effective medication that customers with legitimate health needs want to be able to purchase,” York said.

Kroger also has urged West Virginia officials to establish uniform rules to regulate pseudoephedrine purchases. Drugstores across the state are establishing different inventory policies, causing confusion among consumers, York said.

“We believe the state should continue policy discussions about pseudoephedrine so that retailers are complying with one set of rules and regulations concerning sales,” York said. “In the long-term, a voluntary approach is far less effective as it creates confusion for West Virginia customers who use these products to meet their health and wellness needs.”

Last year, West Virginia law enforcement officers seized 530 meth labs, a record number. Police busted 207 labs statewide through the first half of this year.

In 2013, Kroger’s pharmacies sold more than 40,000 boxes of cold medications with pseudoephedrine. Only Walmart, Rite Aid and CVS stores sold more boxes in West Virginia.

Kroger’s stricter purchase limits are expected to reduce pseudoephedrine sales significantly at the supermarket chain’s pharmacies in West Virginia.

Next month, Kroger customers will be allowed to buy no more than 3.6 grams, or one or two boxes, per month of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine. West Virginia law allows people to purchase 7.2 grams per month.

In February, CVS also limited pseudoephedrine purchases to 3.6 grams a month.

Last year, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey recommended that state lawmakers pass a bill that would lower the state’s monthly and yearly pseudoephedrine purchases limits. Legislators opposed the lower limits, saying the restrictions would penalize law-abiding consumers.

Earlier this month, CVS stores in West Virginia also stopped selling cold medications that solely contain pseudoephedrine. Meth cooks demand the single-ingredient pills — sold under brand names such as Sudafed — because they yield potent meth without byproducts. CVS’s sales ban extended to out-of-state stores within 15 miles of West Virginia’s border.

Rite Aid, Fruth Pharmacy and Walgreens stores also no longer sell single-ingredient pseudoephedrine cold products.

However, the drugstores still carry cold and allergy medications, such has Claritin-D, Allegra-D and Zyrtec-D, which combine pseudoephedrine with antihistamines and pain relievers. Those medicines can be used to make meth. Two weeks ago, the pharmacy board reported that about 70 percent of people recently arrested for operating meth labs had purchased multi-ingredient pseudoephedrine products.

Pharmacies keep medications containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Customers must show a photo ID and sign a form to purchase the products.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, a retired Kroger pharmacist, said the supermarket chain’s pseudoephedrine restrictions might help to reduce meth production slightly, but wouldn’t eradicate the clandestine labs. Meth cooks often circumvent stricter pseudoephedrine purchase limits by hiring “smurfers” who buy the cold medications for them, Perdue said.

“Clearly, we have delivered a blow that is causing some change, but at the end of the day will the labs be reduced or will we just see a large increase in ‘smurfing’ and more exotic efforts to manipulate the system?” he said.

Perdue, who heads the House health committee, wants drugstores to stop selling pseudoephedrine altogether — or for state legislators to pass a bill that would require people to get a doctor’s prescription before they could buy the meth-making medication.

“We see a continued effort by the retailers to do part of the best thing to do,” he said. “They’re advancing on the field, but they haven’t reached to goal line.”

Reach Eric Eyre at 304-348-4869, or follow @EricEyre on Twitter.