Cold Comfort

Big Pharma and the drug war


When the media first seized on the methamphetamine scare, critics lambasted the pharmaceutical industry for its complicity in producing the illegal stimulant. They charged that drug companies, out of greed, were refusing to replace the pseudoephedrine in their cold medicines, a methamphetamine precursor, with the decongestant phenylephrine, which is useless in producing meth.

There's just one problem: Phenylephrine also is useless in cold medicine, as consumers are discovering. Thanks to state and federal laws requiring that pseudoephedrine-based medications be kept behind drugstore counters, millions of Americans have been wasting their money on a cold remedy that's no more effective than a placebo. Nonetheless, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled the medicine safe and effective.

Critics of the industry have seized on this problem too. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has urged the FDA to investigate Pfizer—which was the first company to offer a reformulated alternative to pseudoephedrine, the phenylephrine-based Sudafed PE—for marketing an ineffective medication. Not wanting to upset the Bush administration's drug warriors, the agency thus far has refused.

Given all the abuse the drug companies were taking because of meth cooks' illegal use of their products, you could almost forgive Pfizer for putting a useless product on the shelves. Less forgivable: According to The Wall Street Journal, once Pfizer's new product was ready to go, the company switched sides and began to lobby in favor of laws restricting pseudoephedrine sales. The new laws essentially cleared the shelves of Pfizer's competitors.

Meanwhile, the early evidence indicates the behind-the-counter laws have done nothing to curb methamphetamine use. Mexican traffickers, who already provided most of the meth consumed by Americans, have picked up any slack created by local cooks who went out of business because pseudoephedrine became harder to obtain from retailers.