CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With all the recent happenings, it's easy to forget that West Virginia remains ground zero for substance abuse misery in America. There is no denying it -- our state is the national leader in per capita drug-related preventable deaths. As chairman of the recently created Kanawha County Substance Abuse Task Force, it was my job to uncover, to the best of my ability, the available evidence on possible remedies.
After three months of meetings, it became obvious to us that there is no simple solution for the tragedy of addiction to either prescription pills like hydrocodone or illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, which is why 12 of the 13 recommendations of the task force addressed this issue. We also learned, though, that one part of the overall problem -- the domestic production of methamphetamine -- can be greatly diminished by a single act of public policy.
This illegal activity has reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the state. It's abundantly clear that these meth labs are fueled by easy access to the cold medicine component, pseudoephedrine (PSE), and our analysis showed that in states (Oregon and Mississippi) and municipalities (in Missouri and Tennessee) that have enacted laws and ordinances requiring a prescription for PSE there have been dramatic reductions in lab seizures, while no other actions make a significant difference. This was corroborated by last year's report from the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress.
We also heard from two different Mississippi mayors who informed us that they had seen little, if any, consumer inconvenience because of this requirement. Furthermore, the task force was unable to find a jurisdiction that had enacted such a mandate where there was any movement to rescind it.
We were shown polls (including one in West Virginia) that purported to show that the public opposes the prescription-only mandate, but, when questioned, the drug companies are reluctant to acknowledge that these polls were all industry-funded and included leading questions.
In contrast, in December, the highly respected Vanderbilt poll in Tennessee found that 65 percent of the 890 Tennessee voters surveyed supported a prescription requirement for PSE. This percentage extended across all political ideologies. This truly is not a partisan debate as there are sponsors of these bills in our Legislature from both parties and it's undeniable that Oregon is a blue state and Mississippi is a red state. To date, I am unaware of a politician anywhere who has been defeated because of their support of this law.
Despite what you might hear, in the present West Virginia legislation (which mimics the task force recommendation), two new PSE products with much lowered meth-making potential, would likely be exempted, providing options for the public to get PSE without a prescription. Recent media reports documented support of this approach by Fruth Pharmacy, the first local company to stock the new products. In response, industry lobbyists claim that this would provide a competitive advantage to certain drug-makers. Yet, how is this different from the government requiring all automobile companies to develop the technology to place seat belts and air bags in their cars for public safety?
In addition to our task force's support, the Governor's Advisory Council for Substance Abuse, comprised of the state's most prominent health-care and substance abuse experts, made this policy one of their primary recommendations to the governor. The evidence is thus mounting that implementing it would, with little citizen outcry, save us from many fires, explosions, toxic exposures to children and first responders, and costly damage to personal property, all of which strain both public and private budgets.
Perhaps, most importantly, by cutting down on the resources needed to locate, seize, and clean up clandestine labs, we can redirect these funds to West Virginia's other more complex and widespread drug problems. It's a unique opportunity, and we're depending on those we elected to help us take advantage of it.
Foster, a Charleston surgeon and former state senator from Kanawha County, is a Gazette contributing columnist.