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WASHINGTON -- As Congress considers a law to classify cough and cold medications as Schedule V drugs, making them available only through a doctor's prescription in 17 states, a survey commissioned by the Food Marketing Institute and the National Consumers League has found that consumers are in agreement with some restrictions on products that can be used to make illegal methamphetamine, but are concerned about access for legitimate users.
The results of the online poll, conducted by Harris Interactive in late March and including 2,906 consumers across the country, were presented yesterday in a teleconference call by the two organizations. The poll has a sampling error of +/-1.8 percent.
According to the survey, more than four in 10 consumers (44 percent) said that placing pseudoephedrine-containing cough, cold, and allergy medicines behind a pharmacy counter would create a hardship for them. Sixty-two percent responded that they don't think restricting sales of these drugs to pharmacies is a reasonable measure to control meth production.
Those polled proved far more receptive to less-stringent restrictions, as shown by the measures they found "somewhat" or "very reasonable":
--Placing such cough, cold, and allergy products behind "a counter, not a pharmacy counter": 71 percent.
--Placing them in a locked display case: 62 percent.
--Limiting the amount of such products that people can purchase: 84 percent.
--Restricting the age of buyers: 74 percent.
--Requiring buyers to sign a logbook and show a photo ID: 59 percent.
"If sales of products containing pseudoephedrine must be restricted, the burden should not be borne by everyday consumers who depend on these products," said NCL president Linda Golodner in a statement. "This survey shows that many consumers are willing to live with some restrictions -- but many also do not feel that restricting sales to pharmacies is reasonable. This may be because of pharmacies' limited hours and the fact they are not widely accessible in many low-income neighborhoods and rural areas."
Noted FMI president and c.e.o. Tim Hammonds, "Many supermarkets are already helping law enforcement curb meth production by limiting sales of these products, by putting them behind counters or in locked glass cases. We are training clerks to look out for suspicious purchases and to alert police, following the national Meth Watch program."
Hammonds, who pointed out during the teleconference that retailers are "shocked and dismayed" by the current meth epidemic, stressed, "Consumers and supermarkets alike want to be part of the solution. We want to help police limit the medicines used to produce meth. But we also want to strike a balance, find common ground, find a solution that works for everyone."
Golodner concurred: "We really need a national answer to this." Her main concern was that innocent consumers not be "unfairly burdened" by the restrictions now under consideration, or already enacted in some states.
Both associations are in favor of a federal law that would put in place the types of sales restrictions that most consumers support. Such a law, say FMI and the NCL, would help prevent small-time meth production nationwide and allow the police to concentrate on the "superlabs" and gangs that account for 80 percent of the problem, according to law enforcement estimates cited by the organizations.
The survey additionally found that 77 percent of consumers have purchased pseudoephedrine products in the past year. Higher proportions of respondents with children in the household (86 percent), and especially women with children (90 percent), have bought these medications.
Among those who purchase the products, 50 percent say it's "very important" to be able to do so "any time of the day." This figure goes up in households with children (56 percent) and among women with children (61 percent).
Consumers buy the medications at such venues as discount stores (71 percent), drug stores (64 percent), and supermarkets (49 percent). Restricting sales to pharmacies would severely limit their availability in supermarkets, since just 9,900 of the country's 33,800 supermarkets include such departments. Also, no convenience store would be able to sell such medicines.
51 percent of those polled said they are either very or somewhat familiar with the problem with meth abuse, with awareness higher in the West (59 percent) and among families with children ages 13 to 17 (62 percent).
Hammonds noted during the teleconference that "we will be sharing this [survey data] with folks on the Hill," referring to Congress, and added that FMI was willing to testify before the legislative body, if necessary. He also noted that the organization was making the same information available to state associations.
Approximately 250 products on the market contain pseudoephedrine, which meth users cook down and extract to produce illegal methamphetamine. Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have already passed laws restricting sales of some or all products containing pseudoephedrine to pharmacies, in some cases by classifying them as Schedule V drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. Oregon has issued a regulation. More than 30 states are currently mulling similar restrictions.