NEW YORK (AP) _ Wal-Mart is moving many cold and allergy medications behind pharmacy counters, hoping such an action will help curb access to an ingredient used to make the illegal stimulant methamphetamine.
All Wal-Mart stores will relocate the nonprescription drugs by June, the world's largest retailer said Monday.
The retailer _ which has almost 4,000 Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores in the United States and another 1,600 international locations _ will join rivals Target Corp. and Albertson's Inc. in making such a move in all their stores. Customers won't need a prescription, but will need to ask pharmacists for the medication.
All three retailers are trying to make it more difficult for customers to easily obtain medications containing pseudoephedrine, which is a key component for making methamphetamine, a powerfully addictive drug. Popular over-the-counter medications such as Pfizer Inc.'s Sudafed and rival Schering-Plough Corp.'s Claritin-D list pseudoephedrine among their active ingredients.
A law adopted by the Oklahoma Legislature last year requires that cold medications containing pseudoephedrine be kept behind pharmacy counters. Customers must sign for the medication and show identification and the amount they are allowed to buy is restricted.
The law has been credited with a 70 percent drop in meth lab seizures, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. Similar legislation is being sponsored in Congress.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which had already begun the changes, estimates that 60 percent of its stores now sell such abused products behind the counter.
``We will continue with our plan to move the most commonly abused products containing pseudoephedrine behind the pharmacy counter in all our stores by early June,'' said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jacquie Young. ``The remaining solid dose products containing multi-ingredients will be moved behind the pharmacy counter by September.''
Young said Wal-Mart has also been in discussions with suppliers ``regarding the reformulating of these products with alternative ingredients.'' Pfizer is reformulating its entire Sudafed line and expects most of the products to be changed by year's end.
Schering-Plough spokeswoman Julie Lux confirmed the pharmaceutical company is in talks with retailers about pseudoephedrine. However, the company _ like others _ remain hesitant to change the formulas in some of their biggest over-the-counter sellers.
``We're always open to ideas to best serve our customers. We are also concerned about restricting access to the people who need them and use them safely and legally,'' she said. ``This is a product many people have relied on for relief, and of course we firmly support all initiatives that address abuse.''
The move by Wal-Mart comes as a number of states imposed restrictions on the sale of some cold medicines, which have resulted in a drop in the number of meth lab seizures. Six states allow only pharmacies to sell drugs with pseudoephedrine, and seven others make retailers lock up the products or sell them from staffed counters. Legislatures in 22 states are considering similar restrictions.
Earlier Monday, food and drug retailer Albertson's said it would shift the sale of some over-the-counter cold medicines to behind the pharmacy counter. The Boise, Idaho-based firm operates some 2,000 pharmacies nationwide under names such as Savon and Osco drugs.
``The clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine has tremendous social, environmental, and law-enforcement impact in many of the communities we serve,'' Albertson's CEO Larry Johnston said in a statement. ``We want to do our part to make certain that the products we sell do not become part of the problems that methamphetamine labs cause.''
Methamphetamine has become a widespread problem after emerging on the West Coast about a decade ago, and then began to move east. There were some 16,000 methamphetamine lab seizures last year, up from 912 in 1995, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
It is estimated the nation has some 1.5 million meth addicts, which represents about 8 percent of the nation's 19 million drug users. The drug is made by taking over-the-counter cold medicines and boiling them down using highly toxic chemicals to siphon out the pseudoephedrine.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, D.-Calif., who is co-sponsoring legislation to require pseudoephedrine no longer be sold over the counter, commended Wal-Mart and other retailers for taking action. She urged others to follow suit.
``This is a major advance in the fight against methamphetamine production since blister packs containing cold medicine with pseudoephedrine have become a major source of the precursor chemicals necessary to produce meth,'' she said in a statement. ``Meth has swept across the nation in recent years, leaving behind a trail of destroyed lives, shattered families, crime sprees, and hazardous waste.''