NASHVILLE — Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he may reconsider his opposition to requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine-based cold and flu medicines to combat illegal methamphetamine production.
The Blountville Republican last week said results of a Vanderbilt University poll showing 65 percent of 860 registered voters would accept prescriptions to fight meth production were "amazing to me."
"That makes me feel better, because I have evolved on this issue, from thinking, 'Why should 99 percent of the people be punished for the 1 percent that abuse it?'" Ramsey said. At the same time, he said, the meth problem across Tennessee is "unbelievable."
He said he's not ready to commit to a prescription requirement has "gone from being against it to very, very open to it."
Law enforcement has begged state lawmakers for years to require physician prescriptions for products like Sudafed and Actifed. The products' main ingredient, the decongestant pseudoephedrine, is the key ingredient in the highly addictive drug.
Tennessee is among the top four in the nation for annual meth lab discoveries.
But local officials complain the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents major pharmaceutical manufacturers, has successfully lobbied against the prescription-only approach.
A law passed in 2011 makes people present photo ID and sign a registry to buy pseudoephedrine products. They can't buy more than 9 grams of pseudoephedrine each 30 days.
Law enforcement says meth cooks get around the law by sending crews of people dubbed "smurfs" to make the buys. Since June, 18 Tennessee towns and cities have passed ordinances requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine-based products.
But on Dec. 6, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper issued a legal opinion saying such bans violate the 2011 law.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association hailed Cooper's opinion, which became public a few days before the release of the Vanderbilt poll. The group said its own polling showed Tennesseans want "effective solutions" to meth abuse, but not a prescription requirement.
"When presented with the full scope of this complex issue -- which includes the fact that the large majority of methamphetamine is imported into this country and imposing a prescription requirement on law abiding citizens will do nothing to address the demand for meth -- Tennesseans oppose legislation that would require them to take time off of work to visit a doctor for cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine," the group said in a statement.
Winchester, Tenn., has passed a prescription requirement and Police Chief Dennis Young said last week it is reducing meth problems in his community. He said the city isn't getting a lot of citizen complaints over the requirement, either.
He said drug manufacturers "fought [cities] tooth and nail" with lobbyists and public relations efforts including newspaper ads and robocalls attacking proposed restrictions.
Between May 5, 2009, and Aug. 6, 2013, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association spent between $370,000 and $785,000 to hire lobbyists and on lobbying-related expenses, according to a Times Free Press tally of expenditures from the group's disclosures to the Tennessee Ethics Commission.
Tennessee doesn't require groups to report exact amounts spent on lobbyists and other efforts to influence state lawmakers, but rather broad ranges.
The Vanderbilt poll, which covered a range of issues, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percent.
Republicans, Democrats, independents and tea party supporters backed prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, said Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer. He is co-director of the university's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which drafted the poll's questions.
"Here's an example of real data that suggests that, in fact, people are prepared to do that," Geer told reporters. "Why? Because they see a serious problem with meth and they're prepared to do it and it doesn't show any partisan labels."
The findings conflict with a February poll of 600 voters put out by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. That poll reported 56 percent opposed requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine and 36 percent supported it.
The association poll found 61 percent of voters who use the over-the-counter remedies to treat colds and flu opposed the proposal. The poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. No information was provided on who conducted the poll or the wording or order of the questions, which can affect response.
Vanderbilt's poll of 860 registered voters devoted one question to the topic and puts the issue in the context of illegal meth.
The question says: "Some over-the-counter cold medicines, such as Sudafed, contain an ingredient called pseudoephedrine that is used to make the illegal drug called 'meth.' The Tennessee state legislature recently considered making pseudoephedrine a prescription drug to help reduce meth abuse. Do you support or oppose requiring people in Tennessee to get a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine drugs?"
Meanwhile, legislative proponents of prescription-only availability are offering what they think is a solution to the convenience issue while still screening out potential abusers of pseudoephedrine-based products.
Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, a retired pharmacist, said last week that a fellow pharmacist in the Senate, Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, has a plan to allow pharmacists as well as physicians to issue prescriptions for pseudoephedrine.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.He
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...