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CNN Today

Over-the-Counter Options

Aired June 29, 2000 - 2:47 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Folks who take prescription allergy drugs soon may find relief without making, first, a trip to the doctor's office. CNN medical correspondent Holly Firfer has details now on a push to make some allergy medicines available without a prescription.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOLLY FIRFER, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This driver is swerving in a simulator while using an over-the-counter allergy drug. In real life, this could be deadly. A safer, non- drowsy drug is available only by prescription. Why?

JOHN CARR, PHARMACIST: I think the biggest reason that they are not, of course, is the money that is generated from the prescription side of it. I mean, you know, you can charge much more for a prescription than you can over the counter.

FIRFER: Drug makers and others say a drug's price reflects the cost to make it.

CARR: Typically, $250-$300 million minimum in order to prove safety and efficacy to get a drug licensed. And so, you know, a huge amount of research and money preceded our ability to get a hold of these drugs.

FIRFER: So, why is the same drug less expensive in other countries? Claritin costs $1.94 a day by prescription in the U.S., but Canadians spend 57 cents, less than half, for the same drug over the counter. Australians spend 43 cents.

Allegra, $2.06 a day by prescription there, less than over the counter in Mexico, and less in Britain.

Zyrtec, $1.62 a day by prescription in the U.S., much less over the counter in other countries.

The other governments set prescription prices low so drugmakers can't hike the price of prescriptions, hoping over-the-counter shelf space will at least increase sales.

CARR: We are getting gouged. Another way of looking at it is that the United States is actually subsidizing medical care in these other countries, where the resources are not present to buy these drugs.

FIRFER: The FDA warns that prescriptions help make sure drugs are safe. Take Seldane, marketed as a prescription allergy drug in 1985, made available over the counter in 1997, then pulled from the market in 1998 after seven deaths were linked to the drug.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then it turned out to have some significant drug interactions, which were life-threatening and which could have caused some deaths in the OTC marketplace.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATERS: So what's the bottom line here, what is going on? I mean, over the counter abuse of drugs can be the same as prescription abuse of drugs. So what -- is under a doctor's supervision, is that the consideration factor here?

FIRFER: Well, actually, what they are looking at, that is a consideration, but what they are really concerned about is making sure that some of these drugs that are perfectly safe by prescription could be perfectly safe over the counter as well. So they are saying, what is the sense of making it prescription, if it really can help me. And as we saw in the story, some of these over the counter drugs can be more dangers if not used properly, like Benedril and others that have diphenhydromene (ph), which make you drowsy.

So if you use it properly, if you read the label, and you follow the label, it should not be dangerous either way, prescription, or over the counter.

WATERS: So is this going to happen? What is the determining factor here?

FIRFER: Well, right now, the FDA is having hearings, they are holding hearings today, and they are looking at many things: birth control pills, cholesterol-lowering medications, allergy medications. They are hearing public information, they'll take that under advisement, look at scientific information. If all of that adds up, they will get together, put their heads together, and decide whether it goes over the counter.

WATERS: In other words, stay tuned.

FIRFER: Absolutely.

WATERS: Holly Firfer.

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