Big Brother crawls up your nose

The state’s war on cold medicine continues, driven by the federal effort to curb its use as an ingredient in methamphetamine.

You, the stuffy-nosed, desert-dwelling Nevadan, should consider the following choice that’s currently before your legislature. Would you like Sudafed and similar medicines to be classified as prescription drugs, requiring a visit to the doctor before you can get them?  Or would you prefer your Sudafed purchases were monitored by a company that logs you in an online database, and rats on you when you turn up at a different drug store to buy more, because your kid took yours, or your briefcase was stolen, or you left town without it?

A former law enforcement officer who now works with drug makers demonstrated the tracking system yesterday in Carson City.  He estimated that between one and two percent of pseudoephedrine purchases end up in a meth lab. The tracking scheme is the drug industry solution. A consortium of pharmaceutical companies picks up the tab when retail pharmacies are persuaded to participate in the system. The industry closes the deal by seeking a state mandate on the pharmacies.

Then they work with law enforcement, turning over purchase records on demand, exposing the entire law-abiding population of cold and sinus sufferers to police scrutiny, in order to identify the one percent who might be mixing up a batch of meth.

The tracking system puts your personal identifying information in a web-based document (that’s name, driver’s license, date of birth, address, and frequency of purchase). It’s a juicy target for identity thieves. Ironically, it’s not protected by HIPAA, since the drugs – at least for the moment — are not prescription drugs.  The records follow you from store-to-store and state-to-state. Currently, the individual pharmacies must keep a record of your cold medicine purchases. It remains in-store, although still available to the police.

The legislature will shortly consider reclassifying the medicine, harmless when used as directed on the package, as a prescription drug. Chief cheerleader for the prescription-only bill is the district attorney of Carson City.  The industry will counter with a cost-free proposal to track, setting up an either-or proposition. Doing nothing, most likely, will not be an option. (See SB 203.)

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