THE BLOG

West Virginia Takes on Big Pharma

09/06/2013 05:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

Mississippi and West Virginia are linked in the public mind.

They are both highly ranked in a number of categories associated with high rates of poverty -- smoking, obesity, diabetes, binge drinking.

And until recently, methamphetamine labs.

But in 2010, Mississippi took action that reduced meth lab incidents by 80 percent.

Mississippi joined Oregon and put pseudoephedrine products like Sudafed (Johnson & Johnson), Advil Cold & Sinus (Pfizer), Allegra D (Sanofi), and Claritin D (Johnson & Johnson) back on a prescription-only basis.

But in West Virginia, methamphetamine incidents are increasing at an alarming rate.

According to West Virginia State Police statistics, there were 332 meth lab incidents through August 6, on pace to hit 570 by the end of the year -- more than double the 284 incidents from 2012.

In 2011, West Virginia sought to pass legislation that would put pseudoephedrine products back on prescription.

But the pharmaceutical industry -- represented by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association -- attacked the legislation and it was defeated.

The legislation was introduced by Don Perdue, a retired pharmacist and 16-year member of the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Perdue is chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

"It was extraordinary," Perdue told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.

"It passed out of my committee on a voice vote. There maybe was one dissenting vote. It passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a voice vote. Then it passed on the floor of the House of Delegates by a substantial majority -- 77 to 23."

"Then it went to the Senate. It passed the Senate Health Committee and then went straight to the floor. It was the last day of the session. When it came up for a vote, the Senate tied 16 to 16. On a tie vote, the legislation failed."

"We were seeing robocalls when it got to the floor of the House. They were calling thousands of people across the state. The callers were saying -- don't take away our cold medication. If you got the robocall, it would tell you to call your delegate."

"I didn't get but very few calls. When I got a call, the caller would say -- I don't understand what this is about, can you explain it to me? They didn't know what the robocall meant. They didn't like the idea of losing their cold medication. Every single person I explained it to agreed that putting it on prescription was the right thing to do."

"But that created a lot of animus in the House and a lot of angst. But the robocalls weren't enough to keep us from winning that vote in the House by a substantial margin. And I don't believe it went along party lines -- it was pretty much bipartisan."

"But by the time the vote got to the Senate, the industry was cranking up the robocalls, there were full page ads in the newspapers. They were all about how the state legislature was going to take away people's cold medicines. Talk radio, especially the conservative talk radio, was lighting it up. And it became a cause celebre."

Perdue says that pseudoephedrine is a $3 billion a year product -- and estimates are that 50 percent to 80 percent of that product is used to make meth.

Putting pseudoephedrine on prescription would cost the industry anywhere from $1.5 billion to $2 billion in lost sales.

Perdue says that's the reason his bill didn't pass the legislature -- industry profits.

"It's positively all about profit," Perdue said. "It has nothing to do with public health. It's all about protecting their profits. It's not about individual freedoms. It's not about whether or not somebody has the ability to access cold medications. It's not about that."

In 2012, the industry saw the writing on the wall and realized it would have to put forth its own legislation. So they put forth a bill that would cap the amount of pseudoephedrine products that an individual could buy every year -- and track those sales with a system they would provide to West Virginia for free. It is called the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx).

During the last day of the session in 2012, Perdue was approached by a lobbyist for the industry. The industry wanted to limit the amount of pseudoephedrine any individual could buy to 54 grams a year. Perdue wanted to set it at 48 grams.

"The chief lobbyist for those folks is a woman named Bridget Lambert," Perdue said.

"And she came to me the last night of the session last year. She was pleading with me to come down off the 48 gram limit that I was pushing for."

"And her argument was -- and she was very serious about this, it was a very candid display -- she said -- we can't provide the state of West Virginia the NPLEx system at no cost at 48 grams. In other words, what she was saying was -- we have to be able to sell enough of this product in order to be able to give you this system for free."

"That said to me -- we have to sell a certain amount of this product that we know is going to be turned to illicit use, in order to make the profit it's going to take the support this NPLEx system to track the people who are using it illicitly."

"That's an amazing statement."

Perdue says that the NPLEx system isn't working in West Virginia. Once people hit the 48 gram state limit, they hire smurfs to go and buy the product.

Only putting the drug on prescription will turn back the meth tide, he says. He plans to reintroduce his legislation again in 2014.

Law enforcement is with him. So are the doctors and the medical establishment. Only the pharmaceutical industry and its supporters are opposed.

Perdue believes the pharmaceutical industry is complicit in the meth problem.

"I have always believed it," Perdue said.

"Just recently, we have heard that the pharmaceutical industry kept a log of physicians they found were over prescribing Oxycontin. They had the list for a number of years. We learned that just recently from the Los Angeles Times. That is proof positive that the industry is capable of protecting its interests at the expense of the public."

What could they have done with that list?

"They could have turned it over to the DEA," Perdue said.

"They are not doing it. If the DEA had that list, they could have started investigations of those doctors."

"The pharmaceutical industry is like every other industry. They have to protect their bottom lines. And sometimes they make some really bad moral decisions. In that case, they did. It's proof they can do it somewhere else."

And Perdue believes they are doing it in the pseudoephedrine and meth case. For $1.5 billion, they are allowing this whole population to be destroyed?

"I absolutely believe that. I believe the industry is protecting its assets at the expense of the physical well being of the rest of the public."

(For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with Don Perdue, see 27 Corporate Crime Reporter 33(10), September 2, 2013, print edition only.)