Supermarket efforts to control sales and theft of over-the-counter medicines with potential for misuse are spreading throughout the Midwest and beyond.
Last month, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, said it moved several popular cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy and service counters. Pseudoephedrine is used in the production of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug prevalent in the Midwest, and theft and other abuses of OTC products with that ingredient have been increasing.
Hy-Vee is not alone in the actions it has taken. Other retailers have also had to put policies in place addressing the sales or theft of pseudoephedrine. These retailers include: Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark.; Dahl's, Des Moines, Iowa; Schnucks, St. Louis; Dominick's, Northlake, Ill., a division of Safeway; Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill.; Jewel-Osco, Melrose Park, Ill., a division of Albertsons; CVS/ Pharmacy, Woonsocket, R.I.; and Target, Minneapolis.
So far, Hy-Vee has implemented the most restrictive policy. Beginning in January the chain moved all products containing pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy and customer service counters; limited sales of the products to two per customer; and required a customer signature with all purchases, said Ruth Mitchell, spokeswoman, Hy-Vee.
Dahl's, an 11-store chain operating in many of the same markets as Hy-Vee, pulled all products containing only pseudoephedrine behind its pharmacy counters chainwide about a month ago, said Marilyn Aldrich, pharmacy director.
"This has been a continually growing problem. We reached a point where we decided that we better do this," she said.
"The Midwest is the worst place in terms of methamphetamine production right now," said Mary Ann Wagner, vice president of pharmacy regulatory affairs for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Alexandria, Va. "Rural locations are places that seem to be ideal for the labs that cook meth."
It's still largely a regional problem, she pointed out, with Kansas, Missouri and Iowa among those with the most serious problems. However, it's starting to be a concern in other areas, such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and a number of metropolitan locales in the West.
Retailers are faced with finding a tricky balance between limiting abuses of OTC medicine and still serving customers. Many said pulling cough-and-cold remedies behind the pharmacy or customer service counter is not only logistically difficult, but greatly inconveniences consumers in need of certain products.
"Our first concern is always going to be for the customer, and we want them to be able to get the medications they need when they need them," said Lori Willis, spokeswoman for Schnuck Markets.
Schnuck Markets and other chains, including Wal-Mart, Dominick's and Walgreens, have limited the amount of pseudoephedrine products a consumer can purchase by programming their point-of-sale systems instead of moving the whole category of products.
Schnucks implemented a limit on any product containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine in any amount to one per customer, which affects 60 stockkeeping units.
Twelve SKUs of single-ingredient products are kept behind the counter in compliance with state laws. Missouri implemented laws limiting sales of multi-symptom products containing pseudoephedrine to three boxes, and single-ingredient products to two boxes per purchase in 2003. Legislation also required stores to stock single-ingredient pills within 10 feet of a cash register, store them behind a counter, or tag them with an anti-theft sensor.
Schnucks implemented its more restrictive policy to help ensure chainwide consistency across all the states it operates in, said Willis.
"Obviously, we want to do anything we can to avoid inconveniencing our customer, but we believe that it is important that we partner with law enforcement in any way we can to help keep the community safe," she said. Schnucks also has its associates attend training sessions with local law enforcement to teach them how to spot unusual buying patterns.
Other retailers are also weighing their policies in favor of consumers. Albertsons, parent company of Jewel-Osco, has expressed concern over reports of misuse of OTC products, but continues to make pseudoephedrine products available to consumers.
"Albertsons makes them available, and we do so in compliance with all applicable state and local laws regarding sales of this over-the-counter product," said Karianne Cole, spokeswoman for the company.
Wal-Mart implemented a three-box-per-purchase limit for customers 18 years or older on all pseudoephedrine products chainwide in 1997. Lithium batteries, also used in meth production, are limited to four packs per customer at the register. Wal-Mart enacted its policy when it became aware that many of the ingredients needed for meth production were available in its stores, said Danette Thompson, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart.
"We spoke with the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] about what we as a retailer, not really knowing anything about meth, could do to make a positive impact on this problem," she said.
Wal-Mart maintains a list of products with limitations on them that are part of its register prompt system. Other items on the list include cough medicines with the ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM), an over-the-counter medicine that has received significant media attention because of its abuse by children. DXM is limited on Wal-Mart's POS system to three packages per transaction, and cannot be sold to customers under the age of 18, Thompson said. The ban applies to products like Robitussin and Coricidin HBP Cough & Cold.
Walgreens put a chainwide limit in place in the summer of 2002 to limit sales of products containing pseudoephedrine to no more than six grams per sale. Store scanners are set to calculate the total quantity of pseudoephedrine in a single sale using bar-code information, said Carol Hively, spokeswoman for Walgreens. The chain currently carries more than 300 products containing pseudoephedrine, making it difficult to pull the products behind the pharmacy counter.
Walgreens also limits sales of one DXM product, Coricidin HBP to three packages per transaction nationwide.