CHARLESTON - More often than not, pharmacist Samuel Arco can tell whether a potential customer is looking for allergy relief or looking to cook up meth.
"You don't really want to profile, but I've been on Lee Street for years," said Arco, who works for Fruth Pharmacy at its downtown Charleston location. "We know our customers. ... The effect that meth does on a person's visual appearance, we know what you're going to ask for before you open your mouth."
Arco routinely turns away people who seek pseudoephedrine products like the popular allergy medication Sudafed when he is suspicious that they will use the drug to manufacture meth, or that they are making a straw purchase for someone else.
On Tuesday, Fruth Pharmacies announced that they are taking their battle to thwart illegal meth production one step further, stocking a new drug called Nexafed that makes meth manufacturing difficult to impossible. When abusers try to extract the pseudoephedrine necessary for meth, the tablets break down into a sticky gel that thwarts extraction.
Nexafed has only been on the market since December, but is already carried in about 1,400 pharmacies nationwide, said Brad Rivet, vice president of marketing for Palatine, Ill.-based Acura Pharmaceuticals Inc., which makes Nexafed.
Most of those pharmacies are independent, community pharmacies in parts of the country where meth abuse is rampant. West Virginia is one of those states. Authorities seized more than 300 meth labs statewide since January. More than half were in Kanawha County, where Charleston is located.
Rivet said they now see chains starting to follow independent pharmacists' lead. The company has done little direct marketing to consumers, and for now is relying primarily on pharmacists' good rapport with their customers to explain why Nexafed is a good alternative.
Lynne Fruth, president and chairman of Fruth Pharmacy, which has 27 stores in West Virginia and Ohio, said that while Nexafed is comparable to other pseudoephedrine products in price and effectiveness, pharmacists will have to tap into customers' social conscience to persuade them to switch from brand names with which they have become comfortable.
Fruth said that for now, the plan at her stores is to remove all other pseudoephedrine products at the 30-milligram dosage level and stock only Nexafed. Pseudoephedrine products at other dosage levels will still be available. She said that when Nexafed offers other dosage levels, she plans to stock those as well.
She acknowledged the potential to lose revenue by taking popular brand name medicines off her shelves.
"We feel as a company that we need to do the best thing for our customers and our community," Fruth said. "We're not going to be part of the problem."
Richard Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Pharmacists Association, applauded Fruth for stocking Nexafed and said he expects others in West Virginia will follow Fruth's lead.
He said carrying drugs like Nexafed shows that pharmacists are committed to curbing meth abuse, and provides a better alternative to more drastic steps like requiring a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine, something the state legislature considered but rejected.