NASHVILLE - State House Republican leaders say stalled proposals that would require prescriptions for cold medications containing pseudoephedrine could gain momentum in the House as a result of a Vanderbilt University poll showing high public support for the idea to reduce illegal meth production.
"Well, a recent Vanderbilt survey said the public's attitude to that has certainly changed," House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters. "We do know we have a problem with meth in our state. It's a very serious one."
The Vanderbilt survey found 65 percent of the 680 registered voters surveyed show support for requiring prescriptions for over-the-counter cold relief medicines like Sudafed, which contain pseudoephedrine. Drug dealers use pseudophedrine to make illegal and highly addictive methamphetamine.
In recent years, the General Assembly has resisted requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine-based products, instead passing a pharmaceutical industry-backed law limiting purchases of the products, requiring purchasers to sign for those they do buy and entering the information in a database.
But 18 Tennessee towns and cities said that isn't good enough and last summer passed local ordinances requiring prescriptions. In a legal opinion issued this month, however, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper said the local approach is banned under a 2011 state law.
"I believe we will look at" requiring prescriptions in the upcoming legislative session that starts Jan. 14, Harwell said. "What passes the General Assembly, I'm not sure. But I do believe a bill will be put in."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said, "I think we ought to require a prescription, and that's a reversal from a couple of years ago. But the problem is horrible. It's destroyed families; it's not just destroying the people on drugs. It's destroying their families."
Meth labs in Tennessee continue to thrive. Tennessee ranks third in the nation for lab seizures year to date and has remained in the top three for seven years. The resulting meth-related cost is huge for the Volunteer State, $1.6 billion in 2012 alone, law enforcement authorities have said.
Still, the chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, says in an op-ed column that he remains opposed to requiring prescriptions, arguing it "would unfairly burden law-abiding citizens."
Watson called Cooper's legal opinion an "important step forward this week in the fight against this scourge. That puts the focus in the fight back where it belongs: stopping meth cooks at the sales counter when they try to buy more pseudoephedrine (PSE) products than the law allows."
The National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx), the state's electronic monitoring database, is effective, Watson said.
It "blocks meth cooks and smurfers -- individuals who illegally buy PSE products on behalf of meth cooks -- by requiring an ID and alerting the pharmacy immediately if the buyer has exceeded the legal limit," Watson said.
"Just as important, it lets law enforcement know who the meth cooks are. What it does not do is punish innocent consumers by preventing them from buying popular cold, flu and allergy medicines they need," the lawmaker added.
He said a number of "well-intentioned policymakers at the state and local level believe that requiring a prescription for PSE products will make a difference in the battle against meth production. It will -- but not the kind of difference they want.
"For one thing," Watson said, "it would unfairly burden law-abiding citizens. Families would have to bear the expense of a doctor visit and a prescription, just for basic treatment for a cold or for the allergies that are so prevalent here. It would hit seniors especially hard, causing some to simply forego taking anything. At an advanced age, that can be particularly dangerous."
Watson also argues that in states where prescription laws have been passed, use of meth has not declined.
"Instead, Mexican drug cartels have moved in with even more deadly forms of meth and business is booming," Watson said.
But McCormick said prescriptions should be considered in the fight against meth addiction. One proposal by two state senators is aimed at making it easier to obtain a prescription for pseudophedrine products by allowing pharmacists as well as physicians to issue prescriptions.
"I know they're going to make it somewhere, somehow, but if we can make it less convenient maybe we can save some lives," McCormick said.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, recently told reporters he was more open to the idea of requiring a prescription, citing the Vanderbilt poll.
But the national Consumer Healthcare Products Association, whose members include drug manufacturers, has opposed efforts to require prescriptions, arguing the national online registry is the solution.
"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 recent statement.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association has launched anti-prescription campaigns in any number of states, including West Virginia and Oklahoma.
In Tennessee, the trade group has lobbied the General Assembly on the issue, according to Consumer Healthcare Products Association filings with the Tennessee Ethics Commission.
Between May 5, 2009, and Aug. 6, 2013, the group reported spending between $370,000 and $785,000 to hire lobbyists and for 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 federal government stopped requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine products in 1976. But states can still regulate them.
In a new legal opinion Cooper weighs in yet again on the issue, saying federal law does not pre-empt states' ability to enact a prescription requirement for drugs such as pseudoephedrine.
The opinion was requested by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, a sponsor of the current law placing limits on the amounts of the drug someone can purchase and requiring purchasers provide photo-ID and signatures with their names going into the database.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.