Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Limits imposed on decongestant sales: 5-31-2006

Area pharmacists are moving some nonprescription allergy and cold medicines behind the counter to help reduce methamphetamine abuse
By Elizabeth Hume -- Bee Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Your head is pounding, you can't breathe. You run to the closest drug store for your favorite allergy or cold medicine and -- it's gone! Or seemingly so.

In place of medications such as Sudafed, customers in some stores are finding cards that advise them to see a store employee to get the drug they need.

Like their colleagues around the nation, Sacramento pharmacists are reshelving nonprescription allergy and cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter, thanks to a new law aimed at cracking down on methamphetamine abuse.

"Now we've become the pseudoephedrine police, but that's the way it is," said Land Park pharmacist Gary Thomas, who moved medicines containing the decongestant out of easy reach months ago.

Pseudoephedrine is one of the last methamphetamine ingredients to be regulated by the federal government.

(Typically, pills with pseudoephedrine are crushed in the making of methamphetamine.)

The new law -- co-authored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as an amendment to the Patriot Act -- requires stores to limit the sales of pseudoephedrine-based products and, by Sept. 30, to place them behind the counter.

It also requires stores to keep logs on who buys pseudophedrine -- their names, their addresses and their signatures.

As of April 8, the law imposed a limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine products consumers can buy to 3.6 grams a day and 9 grams for an entire month.

Depending on the type of medication selected, pharmacists say that means customers now typically are limited to one box of pseudoephedrine-based tablets per shopping trip and about two boxes a month.

The restriction may pose a concern for those who need to purchase different types of medications for different family members, pharmacists said.

"Say you have a mother who has a sick husband and infant. Without some ability to get around those sales restrictions, a mother may choose to buy the adult instead of the pediatric portions, and that's incredibly dangerous," said Kristina Lunner, director of government affairs for the American Pharmacists Association.

Gordon Taylor, assistant special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration office in Sacramento, said the payoff for law enforcement is worth the effort.

"It's not that people won't be able to purchase this product. … But for a small inconvenience, we are definitely going to see a lot less meth labs out there," he said.

Many stores already have moved the medications behind the counter or locked them in a display case to comply with the Sept. 30 deadline.

Taylor said the government is still working on its plan for enforcing the new law, including requirements that stores maintain logbooks of customers' names, addresses, the date and time of sale, the name of the product and quantity sold. Customers must show a photo ID and sign the logbook at the time of purchase.

Some larger retail chains, such as Rite Aid, scan driver's licenses to track an individual's pseudoephedrine purchases across the United States.

Thomas and other pharmacists in the Sacramento region say most customers understand why the government wants to crack down on the sale of pseudoephedrine.

Some pharmacists see a side benefit to the new law. "Choosing a medication can be very confusing for the customer, so this gives us a chance to help them," said Steven Dokimos, pharmacist and owner of Knott's Pharmacy on J Street.

Drug companies, meanwhile, are working to offer consumers more options.

"The industry is moving to reformulate to either remove pseudoephedrine or substitute new formulas," said Ernie Schenk, spokesman for the Perrigo Co., the world's leading manufacturer of over-the-counter store brand pharmaceutical products.

The most common substitution is phenylephrine, Schenk said. It's often listed as PE on boxes.

At Pucci's Leader Pharmacy in midtown, owner Tom Nelson said he started to move pseudoephedrine-based medications behind the counter a few weeks ago, after a man came in wanting to purchase hundreds of Actifed tablets. The merchant refused, citing the new law.

Within 10 minutes, Nelson said, a second scruffy-looking man entered the store.

He showed Nelson police identification and said he had been following the first man from store to store as he bought pseudoephedrine pills, a practice authorities call "smurfing."

"Right then I realized it was time to do something," Nelson said.

About the writer:
The Bee's Elizabeth Hume can be reached at (916) 321-1013 or

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