NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Should Prescription Allergy Drugs Be Sold Over The Counter?

May 11, 2001

A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will hold hearings today on a petition by insurers to have a popular class of prescription allergy drugs (sold as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec) sold over-the-counter (OTC). Approval by the agency would be a blow to medical progress, critics warn.

  • Leonard Bielory, of the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey, contends that taking allergy medicines OTC would compromise patient care -- by taking doctors out of the process of managing allergies, which are an important trigger for asthma.
  • Irwin Redlener, chairman of the Children's Health Fund -- which runs an asthma management program in the South Bronx for homeless and poor children -- is concerned there would be increasing self-diagnosis and treatment for problems that just aren't what they seem to be.
  • Moreover, the OTC shift would be a taking of intellectual property from companies which have developed the drugs, says Robert Goldberg of the NCPA -- by establishing the precedent that any group could, for its own financial reasons, seek to limit a drug's patent life by taking it to nonprescription status.

[Ed. Note: The patent on Claritin, for example, is scheduled to expire next year. While most prescription drugs remain prescription-only after the patent expires, drug companies can usually extend the patent life of a drug for three years when it becomes OTC. Thus, if the drug's prescription status is ended a year early, the potential patent life of the drug is reduced by one year.]

Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), other health plans and insurance companies stand to benefit if the drugs go OTC because they would not have to foot the bills -- since consumers pay for nonprescription medications. However, the cost of the drugs would drop in the OTC market.

Source: Robert Goldberg (National Center for Policy Analysis), "Pill-Splitters vs. Gene Hunters," Washington Times, May 11, 2001.


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