The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 20, 2012

Lawmakers revisiting ‘Sudafed bill’

CHARLESTON — Cold and allergy sufferers face another effort at the Capitol to put medications laced with the meth-maker pseudoephedrine on a “prescription only” basis at their pharmacies.

In a Thursday news conference, Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, leader of last year’s failed attempt to pass such legislation, gathered fellow lawmakers, a veteran narcotics officer, and others to promote this year’s version.

While the measure became known as “the Sudafed bill,” it actually covers 15 common household products used to treat colds, allergies and sinus difficulties.

One by one, speakers delivered scathing attacks on the pharmaceutical industry, warning it would wage an expensive publicity campaign against the bill out of a desire to protect profits made via sales to methamphetamine cooks. Foster cautioned lawmakers they would be “bombarded” with massive ads and telephone calls in the weeks ahead.

Industry leaders wouldn’t be using vast resources to combat the bill if they weren’t reaping enormous profits in the sale of medications that wind up in the hands of meth producers,  said House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne.

A retired pharmacist, Perdue said, “There’s a lot of money out there, folks, a lot of money.”

Unless West Virginia comes to grips with the burgeoning meth problem, he warned, it could face “a landslide of meth labs.”

“Any reasonable person would understand that the public health benefits from doing this far outweigh, far outweigh, any inconvenience that’s being suggested by the makers of this product,” Perdue said.

Proponents touted the benefits of a “prescription only” law over the use of a computer tracking system provided by industry known as NPLEx.

Kentucky, the first state to use the system, saw its meth labs go from 428 in 2008, to 741 the following year and to 1,078 in 2011, said Sgt. Stan Salyards, a former Louisville Metro Police officer with 14 years of experience in working narcotics, eight of them in meth.

“Electronic tracking will not reduce meth labs,” he said.

Industry sees it differently, however, and passed out a graph showing that meth labs in Mississippi — one of only two states with a prescription law — witnessed a 62 percent drop in meth labs between January and November 2010. In Alabama, however, which uses NPLEx, the reduction was more dramatic — 76 percent.

Foster quoted figures from a Rand Corp. study showing illegal meth cost the nation $23.5 billion in 2005 in toxic exposure, health care, law enforcement and incarceration.

In West Virginia, the Charleston physician said, the costs run between $150 million and $200 million annually.

Foster said a “prescription only” law has prove “highly successful” in the two states it is in force — Mississippi and Oregon.

A year ago, the bill easily cleared the House of Delegates, but succumbed on a rare tie vote in the Senate.

This year, the measure is known as the “Larry Border Act,” named after the late delegate-pharmacist who worked for it in the House. His wife, Anna, now his successor, spoke on behalf of the bill.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, another supporter, said he gets frustrated when he hears industry leaders refer to the bill as “some kind of knee-jerk effort.”

“Let me assure you, it’s anything but a knee-jerk effort,” he said.

Robert Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan, downplayed claims by critics that a prescription bill will inconvenience consumers.

“The inconvenience to the consumer is outweighed by the safety to the citizens,” said Rupp.

“It’s not the product (meth) that is destroying us. It’s the process. It’s making it. When they leave, what do they leave behind? Millions of dollars in cleanup.”

Reminded that narcotic pain killers are available only by prescription, and that an epidemic of such abuse has gripped southern West Virginia, proponents were asked about “doctor shopping.”

Salyards said this simply isn’t occurring for cold and allergy medicines in Mississippi.

Besides, Foster said, one can easily trick a doctor into believing he is suffering pain and get a prescription for a narcotic, but cannot fake cold and allergy symptoms to get multiple prescriptions for pseudoephedrine products.

“A percentage of our population is going to become addicted no matter what we do,” Perdue said.

“By the same token, eradication of labs is really where we’re headed. If it does that, and I believe it will, I think it’s really worthwhile.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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