Eye on 'smurfing' for meth

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

New posters warning consumers about the dangers of methamphetamine could soon crop up in East Tennessee retailers, as the Tennessee Pharmacists Association in partnership with the Consumer Healthcare Products Association recently launched a campaign to provide informational materials to pharmacists and grocers that sell pseudoephedrine-based products.

The two posters, which are available to retailers for free, were rolled out as part of a campaign initiated about two weeks ago in Nashville.

"This is something that our industry, the manufacturers of these medicines, we were working to find ways to address the illegal sale of medicines containing pseudoephedrine," Elizabeth Funderburk, spokeswoman with CHPA, said. "We had heard anecdotally from law enforcement in different states about people who were smurfing and buying medicines for someone else, so we did some qualitative research and learned that this behavior in fact exists."

She said the material was targeted at people who may not realize the seriousness of smurfing, which is the practice of purchasing small amounts of pseudoephedrine products for the purposes of producing meth.

One sign reads, "Buying meds to make meth? Police take names ... and make arrests," while the other says, "Meth makes children orphans."

"We tested the message materials to ensure for people who might be doing this and might really not understand the gravity of what they're doing and contributing to the methamphetamine abuse that they know that it's a serious crime," Funderburk said. "And so the posters that you've seen that was the result of it. They were the most compelling ones that would have someone stop and reconsider."

Tennessee is the fifth state in which the campaign was launched, along with Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana and Missouri.

According to statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, methamphetamine use has been most prominent in the Midwest and in Kentucky and Tennessee. In 2012, more than 1,800 lab incidents were reported in Missouri, compared with 1,585 in Tennessee. Indiana was third with 1,429.

Heather Atkinson, with Munsey Pharmacy in Loudon, said she was not aware of the anti-smurfing campaign, but noted the problem of customers seeking pseudoephedrine-based products was not as pronounced at smaller pharmacies. She said she has worked at chain stores in Sweetwater, Madisonville and Athens.

"There's always people asking for it," Atkinson said. "I've worked at big chain stores. This store is nothing like Walmart and Walgreens. When I worked there, it was constant. Walgreens it was 24 hours they were coming in. I've really not seen a lot here."

A representative with Walgreens could not be reached for comment.

Eddie Ratledge, with Mulberry Street Pharmacy in Loudon, said if the posters were made available, he would likely participate in the program.

"Anything that I can cooperate with I'm probably going to do," Ratledge said. "If they come out with the posters, I'm probably going to put them up. I haven't seen them yet, but I know they were talking about them."

Ratledge said his pharmacy had measures in place to control the illegal sale of pseudoephedrine-based products, noting that even patients he knows are checked through the National Precursor Log Exchange, a database used by pharmacists and law enforcement to track consumer activity.

"If you're not an existing patient or I know who you are or you have to at least live within Loudon County, you don't get it from me, so I'm probably one of the most stringent around," he said.

He said when the pharmacy opened, the store would get numerous calls per day from customers asking about obtaining pseudoephedrine products. Ratledge said he thought that number has tapered off, in part, because of the pharmacy's reputation.

"Now they know, number one, they're going to have to show me their ID, and if I don't know them, if they're not one of my patients or if it's an out-of-county (patient) you hang it up; you ain't getting it," Ratledge said. "And that kind of gets around I think, and they kind of know, well, it's going to be hard to get it from that pharmacy."

Nick Prince, pharmacist with East Tennessee Discount Drugs in Lenoir City, said the store stopped selling Sudafed a few months ago.

"We don't even get any of those products to sell anymore; we don't even carry them," Prince said. He would not comment further on what alternatives the store was providing in place of Sudafed.

Funderburk said Kroger was currently in the process of putting up the signs, and materials have also been shipped to some CVS locations in the state. She said the signs were not targeted toward people who have legitimate needs for Sudafed and similar products.

"It's not really trying to message to those families who rely on these medicines for relief but people who might not be realizing buying for someone who wants to give them 30 bucks probably isn't a good idea," Funderburk said.

Atkinson said while the National Precursor Log Exchange has had a positive impact on the meth problem, dosing is also an issue.

"I think it's made a difference, but the levels that you can get a month are so high if you took it around the clock every day it would still be hard to get to the max level that you can buy," Atkinson said. "That's my opinion. I'm sure it catches some people, but they'll just come every 30 days."

Ratledge said he has not seen much demand for a product called Nexafed, which is a similar cold medicine to Sudafed but is more difficult to break down into its core components to make meth.

"I do have it in stock, but I've not had anybody come in and ask for it," Ratledge said. "A lot of people don't know about it because it's a newer product. ... It hasn't moved that much to say it's impacted anything at least in my store."