Retail Caught in the Cold War on Drugs

  • Retail Caught in the Cold War on Drugs
  • By Tim Buchholz
  • The first big retail cold and flu season since the Combat Meth Act of 2005 was enacted is in full swing. The Combat Meth Act is federal legislation that was signed into law and implemented in September of 2006. As a result, manufacturers and retailers of many cold, allergy and cough remedy products have had to adjust their operations and marketing efforts to comply with new regulations. At the same time, the industry is working to minimize confusion and inconvenience for the shopper who may already be suffering with sneezes and a running nose as they look for a product that is now under lock and key.
  • At the root of the problem is the illegal drug methamphetamine ("Meth"). Over 12 million people in the US have said they have tried the drug according to the National Study on Drug Use and Health, with over 600,000 users identified when this legislation was first discussed in 2004.
  • Illegal Meth labs have sprung up all over the US, but especially in rural America, where the telltale smell from the manufacturing process raises few red flags. Cold, allergy and cough remedies containing pseudoephedrine, like Sudafed and Claritin-D, have been one of the main ingredients in the manufacturing process.
  • Pseudoephedrine is a decongestant that has been used in over the counter medicines for years. It has been used in combination with pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil / Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), as well as any cough/decongestant remedy with PE in its name.
  • According to the U.S. government, the ready supply of pseudoephedrine at your local drug store or grocer fueled the problem. Before the US Congress started to work on this legislation, a number of states had enacted similar laws, with good results. According to government statistics Meth production in those states had dropped significantly when similar laws where enacted.
  • The Combat Meth Act of 2005 was co-sponsored by Senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, and California Democrat Senator Dianne Finstein, as part of the renewal of the USA Patriot Act. President Bush signed the act into law on March 9, 2006, and it became effective in September. The act avoided pseudoephedrine being classified as a Schedule V narcotic, requiring a prescription. The act created a new DEA classification to make it harder on illegal use of the drug, while allowing consumers to get the medicine they need without the hassle of a prescription.
  • But to help manage control of distribution, retailers must:
  • 1. Locate the products behind the counter or in a locked case.
  • 2. Require customers to show identification and sign a logbook
  • 3. Limit customers to purchases of up to 9 grams of pseudoephedrine a month and no more than 3.6 grams in a single day.
  • And so, the industry adapts. Manufacturers have introduced new products that do not fall under these restrictions, while offering the original formulation behind the counter. Some manufacturers modified their formulas and have created sub-brands with ingredients such as phenylephrine. This allows them to offer products on the shelves which are not restricted. Others have run advertising campaigns to reinforce the power of the original product’s formula while reassuring the consumer that the added effort to buy the original formula is worth the effort. But for many consumers, phenylephrine doesn’t work as well nor does it provide the longer-lasting relief that pseudoephedrine does.
  • Some retailers have adapted their stores by moving the cold aisle closer to the pharmacy or counter. Other retailers alert shoppers to pseudoephedrine options in the main cold category aisle with shelf talkers and signage. In most cases, stacks of cards with real size pictures of the product being held behind the counter have been deployed on selves and display containers in line with non-regulated cold options. This technique provides a clever first glance perception that the selves are stocked with product, but as the shopper focuses in for the purchase, the options and instructions on how to purchase pseudoephedrine products become apparent.
  • Some store have created a subcategory of pseudoephedrine products, while others mix the branded product card packs in the cold category next to options within the brand and category.
  • When the shopper chooses a pseudoephedrine product, the branded card is presented to a clerk or pharmacist at the counter along with a drivers licenses. Name and address are then recorded into the logbook and a signature secured.
  • Behind the counter, some retailers have installed displays where pseudoephedrine products can be easily seen by shoppers at the counter. This provides additional visibility for the category and the opportunity to remind shoppers to stock up on a product that is not only restricted by being behind the counter, but is also limited by quantity for each household for a month. Providing a convenient reminder at the counter is yet another way to improve the shoppers experience by combining transactions at the counter.
  • Because the regulated process itself is an inconvenient two-step process for the shopper, adding conveniences and clarifiers help to provide for a better shopping experience and reduce the frustration of a new process that many will be experiencing for the first time this year.