A majority of Tennesseans and law enforcement officials may favor requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, but the idea is still a tough sell in the state legislature.
Part of the reason could be lobbying.
Drug companies have spent at least $5.9 million — and perhaps as much as $15.2 million — lobbying the Tennessee legislature the past five years, more than doubling the financial firepower of police groups and their allies.
More than 100 professional lobbyists have been hired since 2009 to press the cases of pharmaceutical makers and their suppliers. Their influence has helped stop legislation that would restrict sales of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine manufacturing.
Drug companies also have contributed at least $637,600 to lawmakers' campaigns, over and above the millions spent on lobbyists. These donations have placed the drug industry among the top givers to legislative campaigns.
The interests of drug companies are wide-ranging. But a spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which has lobbied the General Assembly and represents many pharmaceutical companies that also have done so, said pseudoephedrine regulation has been among their top issues over the past five years.
"We're doing everything we can to ensure that consumers' voices are heard," said Elizabeth Funderburk, the organization's senior director of communications and public affairs.
The lobbying comes as the Tennessee General Assembly, like many other legislatures, has debated tough limits on pseudoephedrine as a means of curbing meth production within the state. A subcommittee in the state House of Representatives is scheduled to hold a hearing today on several pseudoephedrine bills.
One proposal has been to require a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine, as mandated under federal law until the 1970s. Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, have passed prescription requirements, with both reporting sharp drops in meth production afterward. Several communities in rural Missouri also have begun to require prescriptions.
But drug companies have countered that more restrictions would be an inconvenience to hay fever sufferers and others who rely on pseudoephedrine for extended periods. They have taken their case directly to lawmakers.
Hard figures on lobbying are difficult to come by in Tennessee. State law requires companies and organizations that hire lobbyists only to report their spending with ranges, not exact dollars.
But a Tennessean analysis of lobbying records has found that 35 pharmaceutical companies, two of their major suppliers and three trade associations have hired 107 individual lobbyists since 2009. These companies have spent between $5.9 million and $15.2 million.
And those figures may not include spending that does not relate directly to contacting state lawmakers, such as public relations and lobbying local officials.
By comparison, law enforcement groups, organizations representing local governments and others have spent between $2.8 million and $6 million. Records show this broad coalition has hired only 23 lobbyists, often to work on issues unrelated to methamphetamine production.
The mismatch in resources has been a factor in keeping more restrictions on pseudoephedrine at bay.
"I would say they certainly have had an impact," said Martin Police Chief David Moore, president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. "Certainly, we don't have PR firms working for us."
Several bills have been filed this session that would tighten access to pseudoephedrine. One of the most broadly supported measures has been filed by state Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin. Senate Bill 1791 would require a prescription but would allow pharmacists — not just doctors — to write one out.
Haile, a pharmacist by trade, says the restriction would mean his colleagues could be held accountable for selling pseudoephedrine irresponsibly. When a similar restriction was placed on codeine in 1996, pharmacists were empowered to turn suspected abusers away and recommend alternatives to legitimate users, he said.
Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed an alternative plan that would keep pseudoephedrine available over the counter, but with tighter restrictions. The Republican governor says his plan strikes a balance between the needs of consumers and law enforcement.
Polls on the issue have been mixed. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association cites the results of a poll taken in February that showed 56 percent of Tennesseans oppose requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
But a more recent poll taken by Vanderbilt University suggests the opposite. The school's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions found that 65 percent of Tennesseans back a prescription requirement, especially if a link is drawn between a prescription requirement and fighting meth.
Both sides in the debate may stake a claim to speak for the majority of Tennesseans. But plenty of lobbyists also are whispering in the ears of lawmakers.
Local governments, law enforcement and other legal organizations have spent millions of dollars since 2009 lobbying the General Assembly, but pharmaceutical companies have spent two to three times as much. Reports filed with the state show that pharmaceutical companies spent at least $5.9 million and perhaps as much as $15.3 million directly on lobbying state lawmakers over the past five years:
Spending range for pharmaceutical companies
Spending range for Law enforcement/local governments
Source: Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 and on Twitter @chassisk.