Opinion

Feds’ next target: your cold medicine

Photo of Mattie Corrao
Mattie Corrao
Contributor

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will hold a hearing to consider an exceptional intrusion into personal consumer choice: an advisory committee of the agency is meeting to debate whether commonly-used cough and cold medications should require a prescription.

Yes, you read that correctly.  This hearing could set the stage for a potentially perilous shift in what the government decides the American consumer is allowed to do.

This latest extension of the nanny state is being spurred by misguided concerns regarding the abuse of an ingredient, called Dextromethorphan, found in over 100 common cold medications.  While recreational uses of these medicines may occur, the rate of incidence is low.  A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that approximately 0.7 percent of drug-related emergency room visits involved dextromethorphan in 2004.  Thirty-one percent of those were the result of adverse reactions to medicine that was used as directed.  Many others were the result of accidental overdoses.

The FDA argues that the 50 percent increase over the past six years in Dextromethorphan-related hospital visits merits this latest regulatory intrusion — never mind that this supposed increase puts the rate of occurrence barely over 1 percent and ignores accidental overdoses and adverse reactions.

Never one to let facts cloud the issue, the FDA is forging ahead, crusading to raise the cost (in terms of time and money) of cough medicine by requiring a prescription for medicines containing dextromethorphan.  Beyond this disproportionate response to a relatively narrow concern, there is little evidence this “solution” would address any of the regulatory crowd’s anxieties: after all, prescription drug abuse is twice as common as recreational use of over-the-counter medications containing dextromethorphan.

Currently, the Drug Enforcement Agency considers dextromethorphan a low threat. Perhaps it recognizes what the FDA has failed to understand: the market controls for these misgivings. Drug manufacturers have a significant interest in ensuring their products are not used illicitly. To that end, they have taken great care to fastidiously label medications and inform consumers on proper usage and dosage parameters. This has adequately allayed the explosive recreational use of cough medicines envisioned by the FDA.

Lacking evidence that cough medicines are being abused at a rate that could be considered anything above negligible or that the current system does not ensure safe usage, the FDA has little footing for this latest crusade for a statist dystopia.

Even more disconcerting, however, is that this ruling could greatly expand the regulatory scope of the FDA.
When abuse of cough medicines does occur, it requires enormous amounts of medication to produce psychotropic effects.  If the FDA is allowed to limit access to a medicine that is so benign that for it to produce psychotropic effects it needs to be consumed at a rate of over 20 times its recommended dosage, it would set the stage for an authoritarian FDA whose scope is practically limitless.

Requiring a prescription for commonly-used cold medicines punishes cough sufferers for the illicit behavior of a few. With consumers already starting to feel the squeeze of increased costs under Obamacare, the FDA should be concerned with the impact of adding even more to health care costs. Pushing commonly-used and extremely safe cold medications behind the pharmacy counter would do just that. What’s more, this latest regulatory overreach promotes an indefensible government dependency that signals personal responsibility is a relic of the past. If consumers can’t be trusted to buy their own cough medicines, can they be trusted to make their own decisions at all?  All eyes will be on the FDA tomorrow to see if their answer is no.

Mattie Corrao is the government affairs manager at Americans for Tax Reform.