Do we need more limits on cold medicine access?

No surefire solution exists to get us ahead of the methamphetamine scourge, so we ask lawmakers to move carefully before taking the major step of returning some popular cold and allergy medications to prescription status.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that follows the lead of Oregon and Mississippi in requiring a prescription to buy medications that contain pseudoephedrine, ephedrine or phenylpropanolamine.

The question is whether the requirement is worth the additional cost and inconvenience it will bring to a large number of law-abiding people who simply want relief for their all-too-common symptoms without having to go to a doctor to get a prescription. And given the abuse of prescription medicines, and the willingness of some doctors to write illicit prescriptions, is this the cure-all proponents say it is?

State Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort raises a valid concern about the proposal. Cold and allergy medications are used to make meth, but so are soda bottles and coffee filters.

"Does a restriction on the purchase of one thing logically lead to a similar restriction on others," Davis asks.

Federal law has required cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine to be put behind the counter since 2006.

Whether the drop in the number of meth labs in Oregon and Mississippi can be attributed to the prescription requirement is up for debate. A study released in February concluded it was not the case in Oregon. A large share of the decrease in labs came before 2006, when Oregon put prescription requirement in place. Meth lab numbers also decreased in neighboring states with no prescription requirement.

The study's critics point to its pharmaceutical industry backing and say it used unreliable data on what has been happening in neighboring states that don't require a prescription. They also point to a significant drop in meth users.

Critics of prescription requirements raise these concerns:

  • Consumers must pay for repeated doctor's visits.
  • The uninsured are hit harder.
  • Insurance companies have to bear new costs or pass them on to consumers.
  • Limits on nonprescription sales would no longer apply; meth cooks could purchase unlimited amounts if they get prescriptions.
  • There is no real-time blocking of illegal sales for prescription drugs.
  • South Carolina law requires that these products be kept behind the counter, limits the quantity customers can buy in a day and a month, requires them to show identification and requires pharmacies to keep a log of purchasers. The information is put into a national database.

    The bill now in the Senate would strike this statute and replace it with the prescription requirement.

    State Law Enforcement Division officials support the change, saying they are seeing an increasing number of meth labs in the state despite the 2010 law. They say the labs, with their cocktail of chemicals, are volatile and potentially dangerous and leave behind environmental hazards.

    They also say people have figured out how to get around the limits the current law sets by "smurfing," sending people to different locations to buy the medications to be used to make meth.

    Here in Beaufort County, information in the database helped in the arrest and successful prosecution of a Bluffton couple. Solicitor Duffie Stone says the tracking system helped his office make its case.

    But it's not clear how successful the law has been in preventing multiple purchases later used to produce meth. It apparently didn't stop the couple prosecuted by the solicitor. It provided evidence for arrest and prosecution after the fact.

    Information on sales is supposed to be entered immediately into the national data collection system so that it is available in real time to signal whether a purchase violates state or federal limits "to the extent the information is available." And the law notes that a retailer has up to three days to enter the information if the system is down at the time of a purchase.

    There might be ways to improve the current law without making medications many people rely on more expensive and harder to get.