Decongestant dogfight looms in W.Va.
09/23/2013 - The Charleston Gazette. By Eric Eyre.
CHARLESTON - A drug industry trade group has vowed to fight proposals to lower the yearly amount that West Virginians could buy of a cold medicine that's used to make illegal methamphetamine.
The Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Healthcare Products Association would oppose any legislation that would sharply reduce the amount of pseudoephedrine that customers could legally purchase without a prescription, the group's lobbyists told the Gazette.
Last week, members of a Kanawha County meth task force asked the trade group about dropping West Virginia's annual purchase limit from 48 grams a year to 24 grams a year -- or about 20 boxes to 10 boxes of the cold and allergy medication. Kentucky law limits purchases of pseudoephedrine -- better known under brands names such as Sudafed and Claritin-D -- to 24 grams annually.
"We think that's too low," said Carlos Gutierrez, state governmental affairs director for the trade group that represents manufacturers of over-the-counter medications. "That's only a three-month supply."
Dr. Dan Foster, who heads the task force, criticized the trade group for its unwillingness to reduce pseudoephedrine limits, which would lead to lower sales of the meth-making ingredient.
"This just shows the industry's firm resistance to any serious reduction of sales of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in the production of meth," Foster said. "My feeling is you really need to go to zero [grams]. That's what seems to work."
The West Virginia Board of Pharmacy would support legislation to lower pseudoephedrine purchase limits, if state lawmakers don't get behind a bill that would require a prescription for the cold medicine, the board's executive director said at the task force meeting last week. The board didn't recommend a specific purchase limit.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association successfully lobbied against prescription-only bills in 2011 and 2012.
Last week, lobbyists said the trade group no longer would fund an electronic system -- called NPLEx -- that tracks West Virginia's pseudoephedrine sales, if state lawmakers dropped the maximum purchase limit in half. NPLEx blocks purchases when people try to exceed monthly and yearly limits.
"The manufacturers of pseudoephedrine willingly fund [NPLEx] in any state that mandates its use," Gutierrez said. "We do so with the expectation that the Legislature will maintain appropriate access to these medications by cold and allergy suffering families."
In March 2012, Kentucky lawmakers enacted a 24-gram limit, and the state continued to have access to NPLEx. The system -- used now in 27 states -- was developed by a Louisville, Ky.-based company.
"We made a commitment to the state, and we stuck by it," Gutierrez said. "The severe reduction in what allergy suffering families can purchase in Kentucky is not a policy we support."
He said West Virginia already has the second-most stringent purchase limit in the nation, except for Oregon and Mississippi, the only two states that require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
West Virginia's limit also is significantly lower than the federal limit of nine grams a month, or 108 grams a year.
"As a result, West Virginia allergy sufferers are limited to a little over a six-month supply," Gutierrez said. "West Virginia's neighbors, Virginia and Maryland, are allowed to purchase a full year's supply."
West Virginia law enforcement agencies have seized more than 370 meth labs this year, setting a pace that would double last year's total. Many officers and some legislators blame the spike in meth labs on the widespread availability of pseudoephedrine, which is sold at pharmacies.
Two West Virginia lawmakers -- Del. Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas -- have said they would introduce bills in the upcoming legislative session to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
To combat West Virginia's meth lab problem, Gutierrez suggested that state legislators instead pass a law that would ban people convicted of meth-related crimes from buying pseudoephedrine.
Five states already have "meth-offender registries." NPLEx would block criminals from purchasing the decongestant.
"While we oppose initiatives that would impose a prescription mandate for popular cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine," said Elizabeth Funderburk, a Consumer Healthcare Products spokeswoman, "we do see merit in proposals to ban the sale of these medicines to criminals convicted of meth-related crimes and look forward to working with the task force, as well as the state Legislature next session, to enact effective measures aimed at stopping the illegal sale of these medicines to criminals."
Foster, the meth force task force chairman, said criminals on the meth-offender list would hire other people -- called "smurfers" -- to buy pseudoephedrine.
"I'm not against [a meth-offender registry]," Foster said, "but those types of laws aren't going to cut sales very much and improve things."