Vanished Behind the Counter
Starting this week, you'll need help buying your Claritin and NyQuil
Got a cold? Add a new headache to your cough and stuffy nose: As of September 30, new federal restrictions will make it harder for Americans to get their hands on decongestants. The rules aim to foil producers of methamphetamines by putting the necessary ingredients-found in such medications as NyQuil Cold & Flu, Actifed Cold & Allergy, and Claritin-D-behind the pharmacy counter or in a locked case.
Until now, anyone running an illegal meth lab could buy armfuls of cold and allergy medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, then boil, dry, and filter the substances into the highly addictive drug. Lawmakers blame easy access for the fact that meth now leads cocaine, marijuana, and heroin as the top illegal drug problem in 48 percent of the nation's counties, according to a June 2006 survey by the National Association of Counties. To get the medicines, customers will now have to show picture ID and sign a logbook recording what they buy and where they live. The logbooks will remain on file for two years and be accessible to law enforcement authorities. Already, whether you've noticed or not, you're limited to purchasing 3.6 grams of the products per day and 9 grams every 30 days; those limits took effect in April.
If you're desperate for relief outside of pharmacy hours, a new version of Sudafed-Sudafed PE-contains an active ingredient not subject to the new laws. But there's debate in the medical community about whether the substance, phenylephrine, works as well as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine-or even at all. Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, has requested an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration of phenylephrine's effectiveness. Meantime, Schering-Plough is now analyzing the results of a trial comparing phenylephrine with pseudoephedrine and a placebo. The company makes Coricidin D, another option containing phenylephrine that can remain on store shelves.
The bright side. The extra hurdles may seem annoyingly high, but contact with a pharmacist might actually provide a health benefit, says Colleen Brennan, pharmacist and spokesperson for the National Community Pharmacists Association. Some people shouldn't be taking pseudoephedrine freely: It can be dangerous in those with high blood pressure, glaucoma, or diabetes, for example. (Phenylephrine's effect on these conditions isn't fully understood.)
Some experts doubt that the regulation will do much to stop the flow of meth, or change the big picture as far as addiction goes. On one hand, Oklahoma, which restricted access to over-the-counter cold medications in 2004, has seen the number of lab busts per month drop precipitously, from 120 to fewer than 10.
But Richard Rawson, a psychologist at the University of California-Los Angeles who has studied methamphetamines for 20 years, says that unless prevention and treatment also become a priority-especially among high-risk groups like young women, gay men, and Latinos-the epidemic that has been raging in the western and midwestern states won't subside. The fact that so many people are seeking treatment suggests that methamphetamines are available through other channels, he says-like organized trafficking from Mexico. Be that as it may, the pipeline that provides the drug you're buying is about to get more congested.
This story appears in the October 2, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.