WASHINGTON- The days of buying some cold remedies off the shelf in drug stores soon may be gone, a casualty of the methamphetamine epidemic.
Already more than a dozen states have laws that require retailers to sell Sudafed, Nyquil and other medicines only from behind the pharmacy counter.
Now Congress is working on legislation intended to make it tougher for people to get the ingredients needed to manufacture the highly addictive drug.
Retailers once resisted the idea, saying it would inconvenience consumers. Today, stores seem ready to go along with a federal law in hopes of avoiding a tangle of state regulations.
This month, a Senate committee plans hearings on a bill that sharply restricts the sale of cold and allergy pills containing pseudoephedrine. This ingredient is used to "cook" meth in makeshift labs across the country.
"There's a lot of public pressure to do something," said Sen. Jim Talent, D-Mo. He has joined with Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., on a bill to limit the sale of cold medicines.
"I think retailers - most of them - do not want to sell their products to meth cooks and they know they have to do something," Talent said.
The pharmaceutical industry has not raised major objections.
Pfizer Inc., which makes Sudafed, supports a national standard that would put pseudoephedrine behind the counter, said a company spokesman, Jay Kosminsky.
"I do think there really is an opportunity for a national consensus on this issue and I don't think there was a year ago," Kosminsky said.
The meth problem is particularly severe in the Midwest, where rural areas provide cover for the pungent chemical odor from meth labs. In Missouri, law enforcement officers seized more than 2,700 meth labs last year _ more than any other state.
The Senate bill is modeled on an Oklahoma law that took effect in April. The proposal would require the sale of medicines with pseudoephedrine only by a pharmacist or pharmacy personnel.
Customers would have to show a photo ID, sign a log and be limited to 9 grams - or about 300 30-milligram pills - in a 30-day period. The government can make exceptions in areas where pharmacies are not easily accessible.
Kmart, Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart and other leading retailers have put in place guidelines to move cold products behind pharmacy counters or limit their sales.
Last month, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores endorsed a set of principles that includes limiting access to the drugs.
"We do think it's time for a federal solution," said Mary Ann Wagner, the association's vice president of pharmacy regulatory affairs. "It's just becoming so complicated when you look at a map across the country and no two laws are anything alike."
She said that store employees - not just those in the pharmacy _ should be able to sell the medication as long as they are under a pharmacist's supervision.
The Bush administration has not taken a public position on the Senate bill. But John Horton, associate deputy director for state and local affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said early signs show that state laws are having a positive effect.
A report by the drug office last month found a 50 percent drop in the number of meth labs in Oklahoma and Oregon, two of the first states to enact laws restricting the purchase of pseudoephedrine-containing products.
"We know that when we prevent the methamphetamine cooks from getting the ingredients they need to make the meth, that the problem becomes smaller," Horton said.
Horton estimates about one-third of the meth comes from small labs in the United States, while two-thirds is smuggled in bulk from big labs outside the country, mainly Mexico.
Lt. Steve Dalton, supervisor of the Combined Ozarks Multi-Jurisdictional Enforcement Team, an anti-drug police task force in Branson, Mo., said the meth trade is the worst drug problem he has seen.
"A federal law is not going to wipe it out, but if we can get away from the cleanup of these meth labs, it's going to free up a lot of our time and we can target those that are bringing it in from across the border," Dalton said.