CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A sniffling, watery-eyed woman holding a tissue is becoming a familiar face for West Virginians who surf the web.
The congested lady is stamped across the Internet in ads by over-the-counter drug manufacturers, who hope to kill a push to make some cold medicines available by prescription only. The legislation, aimed at decreasing the production of methamphetamine by making Sudafed-like drugs available only by prescription, was overwhelmingly passed by the state Senate earlier this month.
Now, with less than a week before the Legislature wraps up its lawmaking session, the decision is left to the House of Delegates.
The pharmaceutical industry's advertising blitz is ramping up as state lawmakers consider the proposed prescription-only edict. The industry ad argues West Virginians could miss work for doctors' appointments and foot more co-pays to get common cold treatments if the bill becomes law.
Advocates of the reform, however, say pharmaceutical interests are fudging numbers and using false scare tactics, while the state's methamphetamine epidemic booms.
"They're moving to protect their profits against the better interests of the citizens of the state," said Del. Don Perdue, a Wayne Democrat and House health committee chairman.
Medicines with pseudoephedrine, like Sudafed and Claritin D, can be used to manufacture methamphetamine, an illegal stimulant. Some over-the-counter alternatives can't easily be turned into meth, like Nexafed and Zephrex-D. The bill would keep those products available in West Virginia drug stores.
Over-the-counter proponents say the solution to methamphetamine abuse lies elsewhere. They applaud a new system to track pseudoephedrine purchases, and urge the state to create a meth offender registry.
But advocates of the prescription bill, ranging from law enforcement to medical practitioner groups, say the illegal meth market can sidestep those safeguards through "smurfing" — sending carloads of people to buy as of much the key ingredient as the law allows.
Meanwhile, the meth problem is sprawling across West Virginia. Authorities busted 533 meth labs last year — almost twice as many as in 2012. Labs were found in 45 of the state's 55 counties.
It's a familiar campaign against the prescription push for the over-the-counter industry's main lobby arm, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. The national group spent $7.4 million on lobbying in 2012, including $486,000 during Kentucky's legislative session, when the group helped kill essentially the same bill, according to Internal Revenue Service and Kentucky Ethics Commission forms. The Kentucky total broke records for single-session lobbying expenses, not counting media advertising.
West Virginia's House cleared the prescription-only bill in 2011, but the Senate axed it on a tie vote. The bill was barely considered in 2012.
The prescription requirement effort fizzled in Tennessee's Legislature last year, while the drug trade group's spent $100,000 to $150,000 on lobbying costs, according to the state's Ethics Commission. An Illinois state senator proposed the prescription requirement this week. Other states have considered it.
Only Oregon and Mississippi have similar laws requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine. Steep declines in meth labs followed, but the Consumer Healthcare Products Association disputes the effectiveness of the bans.
"The prescription-only approach for (pseudoephedrine) appears to have contributed to reductions in lab incidents with unclear impacts on consumers and limited impacts on the health care system," according to the nonpartisan federal Government Accountability Office.
In West Virginia, Internet and radio ads against the prescription bill are running statewide, said association spokeswoman Elizabeth Funderburk. At one Charleston station, the group bought three weeks of radio time for $12,500, according to public political files.
Proponents of reform are also disputing new research funded by the pharmaceutical industry. The study by West Liberty University claims the prescription requirement would spur $3.7 million in direct costs for West Virginians; $149.4 million over 10 years in state costs; and $8.3 million yearly in lost productivity while people are at the doctor's office.
"Lawmakers should know the true costs before voting on any proposal to restrict non-prescription access to popular allergy and cold medications," Carlos Gutierrez of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association said.
State Board of Pharmacy Executive Director David Potters questioned if the study considered costs like meth lab cleanup, emergency room costs, lost revenue for landlords and hotels and other expenses. He pointed out that Oregon experienced a modest Medicaid cost increase of about $8,000 a year.
The prescription push passed the Senate easily, but hasn't gotten action yet in the House. The bill will hit the House's Judiciary Committee on Monday or Tuesday, where it could be significantly weakened, Perdue said.