Makers of cold medicines set spending record for lobbying in Kentucky

bestep@herald-leader.comApril 30, 2012 

An industry group spent a record amount lobbying Kentucky legislators this year in its fight to beat back a proposal aimed at reducing the number of methamphetamine labs by requiring a prescription for some cold medicines.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association spent $457,053 on lobbying activities in the first three months of this year's legislative session, according to reports filed with the state Legislative Ethics Commission.

That is the most money that any group has ever spent on lobbying in a legislative session, according to the commission. The group's lobbying effort was so dominant that it spent more than the next five groups combined in that period, January through March, according to spending reports.

In addition to its lobbying expenses, CHPA spent heavily on media advertising.

The group, which represents over-the-counter drug makers, advertised in the state's largest newspapers through the first three months of the session, and in other media, but it doesn't have to disclose that spending to the ethics commission.

Asked what the industry group spent on media advertising, spokeswoman Emily Skor said CHPA had disclosed all the information required by state law.

Part of the spending that the group did report was for a phone-bank operation to put people in contact with legislators to voice concerns about legislation to require a prescription for medicine containing pseudoephedrine, which is now available over the counter.

Those who support requiring a prescription for the drug couldn't match the industry's financial firepower.

Jackie Steele, commonwealth's attorney for Laurel and Knox counties, said a non-profit group set up to push the prescription legislation, called Real Facts About Meth, spent $9,702 from January through the end of March.

As with cigarettes, addiction plays a role in the pseudoephedrine makers' sizeable profits, Steele said.

"How do you fight that?" he said.

Skor said the industry was justified in spreading the word about efforts by some lawmakers to "deny law-abiding citizens non-prescription access to certain cold and allergy medicines they depend on."

"We are committed to ensuring that those who would be impacted by a prescription requirement have a platform to voice their position with their respective elected officials," she said.

The 2012 session was the third in which the legislature considered such a proposal. CHPA reported spending a total of more than $440,000 on lobbying in 2010 and 2012.

Pseudoephedrine is used in making meth. Addicts and traffickers buy pills containing the decongestant, then combine them with other ingredients in crude labs — often made from soft-drink bottles — to spark a reaction that produces meth.

Narcotics officers and others argued that requiring people to get a prescription for pseudoephedrine would slash the number of small, homemade meth labs in the state, which emit noxious fumes and can blow up.

Officials have said the number of labs in Oregon and Mississippi dropped sharply as a result of their laws requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine.

CHPA and other opponents of such a measure argued that it would inconvenience legitimate cold and allergy sufferers.

The industry's fight to quash the prescription requirement this year in Senate Bill 3 was partly successful.

Legislators approved a version of the bill that will require a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine, but only after someone has bought 24 grams of the medicine a year.

A 48-count box of the generic medicine with 30-milligram pills contains 1.44 grams of pseudoephedrine.

The bill excludes limits on gel caps and liquid pseudoephedrine.

Tommy Loving, executive director of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers' Association, said the industry's spending had a definite impact in watering down the final bill.

"I think had we not had this kind of spending in opposition, and misleading ads," there would have been an excellent chance to get a prescription requirement for pseudoephedrine approved two years ago, Loving said.

The industry has argued that it did not spread misleading information.

Neither side was entirely happy with the final version of the bill.

Some authorities are concerned that the weaker version of SB 3 will be only a temporary roadblock to meth labs.

Meth "cookers" use networks of people, called smurfers, to buy pills for them.

The concern is that after an initial dip in production because of the new, lower purchase limits, the cooks will adjust and recruit more smurfers, sending the number of labs back up.

"It's not the ultimate solution," Loving said of the new rules.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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