Retailers Restrict Some Cold Medicines

At a Wal-Mart in Michigan, a warning display appears on a cash register when more than three boxes of Sudafed are purchased.
At a Wal-Mart in Michigan, a warning display appears on a cash register when more than three boxes of Sudafed are purchased. (By Carlos Osorio -- Associated Press)

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By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

Many major chain retailers will remove most over-the-counter cold medications from store shelves over the next two months and put them behind pharmacy counters in an effort to help law enforcement tackle a growing problem with an illegal drug.

In some cases, customers will have to show their driver's licenses and sign a log to purchase relief for a throbbing allergy headache. Some retailers -- tight for space in the pharmacy -- are cutting back on the variety of products they will carry.

"It will be a big change for consumers," said Jody Cook, a spokeswoman for Rite Aid Corp. The move will affect more than 100 products, including common names such as Sudafed, Tylenol Cold and Claritin-D.

The medicines being removed from shelves at Target, Wal-Mart, Rite-Aid and other retailers all contain the common pharmaceutical ingredient pseudoephedrine, found in just about every medication aimed at relieving stuffy noses.

But pseudoephedrine, in addition to providing quick relief for sinus sufferers, is also needed to make the dangerous and addictive drug methamphetamine. Criminals are stealing over-the-counter medicines, or buying as much as they can, and using them to make the illicit drug. Hence the crackdown on cold medicines.

"This problem is so severe in many parts of the country that our retailers are making sacrifices to help law enforcement in their efforts," said Mary Ann Wagner, vice president of pharmacy regulatory affairs for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

Meth production and abuse has been a bigger problem in the Midwest and the West, where some states and counties have enacted or are considering regulations that restrict the sale of over-the-counter cold medications. No laws in the District, Maryland or Virginia require retailers to move the medicines behind the counter. But in Oklahoma, for example, a law enacted last April requires all buyers of such medications to show their driver's licenses and sign logs at pharmacies.

Major retail chains are finding it difficult to follow an ever-expanding patchwork of regulations across the country. So they are opting to implement uniform, national approaches to the problem -- even in areas where the government has no restrictions, such as the Washington market, where meth abuse is a relatively small issue.

"It's an unfortunate result, but it's that serious of a problem," Wagner said.

Merchants that plan to keep cold medicines behind the pharmacy counter will follow different procedures, most of them rolling out the changes by midsummer. Wal-Mart will use the Oklahoma model, for example, asking buyers to show their licenses and sign logs. Rite Aid and Target will not require signatures, except in certain states. Target will put the items behind the pharmacy counter, and its stores with no pharmacy will not sell products containing pseudoephedrine.

Giant Food LLC, along with parent Ahold USA, will decide in the next two weeks how many types of cold medicines it will put behind pharmacy or service counters, said company spokesman Barry F. Scher. Safeway has not decided whether to move the products off the shelves. CVS has decided to move to the pharmacy desk only those medicines that have pseudoephedrine as their sole ingredient, not combination drugs such as Tylenol Cold that might also contain antihistamines or acetaminophen.

Some retailers are restricting only the pill forms of medications, and some are exempting pediatric medicines. The pill form is used to make meth.

But even those retailers that are not taking voluntary steps may be forced to do so. Legislation being proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and James M. Talent (R-Mo.) would adopt the Oklahoma model nationwide.

John C. Horton, associate deputy director for state and local affairs at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said action is needed because the methamphetamine abuse problem has been moving steadily east in the past five years.

"The fear that we have for places like Washington and places like New England is there's going to be a matinee of 'The Meth' coming soon to a theater near you," he said. "We believe that the federal government has a responsibility to protect American citizens from this before it becomes a problem where it doesn't yet exist."

Restrictive sales of cold medicines in Oklahoma, Horton said, have meant a 50 percent reduction in the number of small meth labs, which are thought to supply about a third of the meth sold on the street. These toxic labs are a particular menace, he said, because they generally are located in residential areas, where they pose dangers to children and are environmental and fire hazards.

Tight restrictions on how cold medicines can be sold also means fewer consumers will buy them.

"Sales have really dropped in the state of Oklahoma," Wagner said. Sales have fallen, but less so, in states including Illinois, where medications can be sold behind any service counter or in a locked cabinet.

The changes are tough on manufacturers of over-the-counter cold medicines, which are a $3.4 billion-a-year business, excluding sales at Wal-Mart. Retailers say the big pharmaceutical giants are all trying to develop alternative medicines that provide the same congestion-relieving benefit, without the pseudoephedrine. But it is unclear how long that will take.

"There are several initiatives, both in manufacturing and distribution, that we are looking at right now that we expect will deter the use of pseudoephedrine for the manufacture of methamphetamines, yet still maintain consumer access to effective decongestant products," said Kathy Fallon, a spokeswoman for McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Tylenol products. "We're working as fast as we can."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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