TUCSON -- Signs on the shelves at Walgreens drugstores alert customers in search of over-the-counter relief for colds and allergies that they must ask for the drugs at the cash register -- and buy them only in limited quantities. Store officials say they may soon put the products in locked cabinets.
''People were coming in and buying them like this,'' says pharmacist Liz Troia, mimicking an armful. ''And they were stealing them, too.''
Walgreens has voluntarily restricted sales of many over-the-counter decongestants, whose active ingredient, pseudoephedrine, is also the key ingredient used to produce the addictive illegal drug methamphetamine.
Arizona limits the amount of such drugs that can be bought, but the state soon could join others in going further to fight the mushrooming production of methamphetamine. Last week, the Arizona Board of Pharmacy began drafting a law to classify medicines such as Sudafed as controlled substances and limit where and how they can be sold.
The measures may sound extreme, but extreme circumstances warrant them, many officials say. Last month, officials here revoked the permit allowing a gas station in North Phoenix to sell the medicines after it sold nearly $500,000 worth in the past year. ''He sold more pseudoephedrine than he sold gas,'' says Hal Wand, executive director of the pharmacy board.
Though federal law restricts sales of medicines containing pseudoephedrine, many states say the regulation has had little effect and are passing more stringent ones of their own.
The legislation being drafted in Arizona would emulate Oklahoma's, the most restrictive law so far. The Oklahoma law, enacted in April, reclassifies the drugs as controlled substances that can be sold only in pharmacies and requires the customer to show a photo identification and sign for the purchase.
Despite opposition from drug companies, the law was passed after an Oklahoma state trooper was shot and killed last year by a man cooking a batch of the illegal stimulant days after he had been released on bail from a previous arrest for meth production. Texas is also considering such legislation.
The problem, says Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics , is that many vendors market the medicines. His agency has identified convenience stores selling $7,000 to $10,000 worth of cold and allergy drugs a month.
Most drug companies oppose restrictive laws. ''Our concern is that it hurts legitimate consumers who rely on these products for themselves and their families,'' says Elizabeth Assey, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs. ''For people who live in rural areas, a pharmacy can be a long way away, and it can be difficult to get these drugs.''
Industry groups prefer voluntary programs for public awareness. One initiative, called Meth Watch, has been launched by the group Assey represents. This week, representatives from nearly 20 states are meeting in Washington, D.C., for training.
But some state officials worry that such efforts may not be sufficient to curb sales of the medicines, which are estimated at $1.8 billion a year. Drug companies lobbied hard against the Oklahoma legislation, Woodward says. Pfizer, the manufacturer of Sudafed, one of the most popular cold medicines, deferred questions to the association.
Since 1994, the number of meth labs discovered in Oklahoma has increased from 10 to 1,235.
''We haven't had a 12,000% increase in head colds,'' Woodward says. ''These companies have to know something is amiss.''
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