PORTLAND, Ore. — With many states restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine-based cold remedies, drug companies are reformulating their products in a way that will put them on grocery store shelves while crippling small-scale producers of methamphetamine.
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Drug companies are rushing to replace their pseudoephedrine-based remedies with the decongestant phenylephrine, which cannot be converted to methamphetamine in home labs. Pseudoephedrine is the essential ingredient in methamphetamine.
Officials at Pfizer, the leading U.S. maker of pseudoephedrine products, say the company expects to convert half its lineup of Sudafed, Actifed and other products to phenylephrine by January, The Oregonian reported in its Wednesday editions.
Pfizer officials also now back federal legislation to confine the sale of pseudoephedrine products to pharmacies, as some states have done.
Pfizer spokesman Jay Kosminsky said the company dropped its opposition partly because retail restrictions have succeeded in reducing the number of meth labs in some states.
But another factor is that phenylephrine-based products such as Sudafed PE are selling surprisingly well.
"Most people are just going to take what's available on the shelf and that will be effective for them," Kosminsky said.
Boehringer-Ingelheim of Germany, the world's largest producer of phenylephrine, told The Oregonian that the company is boosting capacity to be able to replace the entire U.S. supply of pseudoephedrine by 2006.
Boehringer Ingelheim developed phenylephrine as an active ingredient for eyedrops in 1949. Later, it became used as a decongestant in the United States and Europe.
Pfizer officials say it is theoretically possible for someone to alter phenylephrine for meth production, but it would be complicated, expensive and almost impossible for anyone to do outside of a commercial laboratory.
Few studies have been done to compare the effectiveness of phenylephrine versus pseudoephedrine as a cold medicine ingredient.
Chris Vance, director of sales and marketing at Boehringer Ingelheim's facility in Petersburg, Va., said nearly every company that manufactures pseudoephedrine products has considered converting to phenylephrine.
A major factor forcing the switch is that roughly 30 states are now contemplating or have enacted legislation that would restrict sales of pseudoephedrine, either by confining such products to pharmacies or by requiring identification from customers.
Oklahoma started the trend in April 2004 by confining sales of pseudoephedrine products to pharmacies. Oregon and other states followed.
"What these guys are doing is fighting to keep their shelf space and fighting to keep something in front of the consumer," Vance said.
Limiting access to pseudoephedrine products would only address the 35 percent of U.S. meth that is manufactured by small-scale producers. The rest is made by "superlabs" often operated by Mexican drug traffickers.
There are an estimated 1.3 million meth addicts in the U.S.