That over-the-counter asthma inhaler in your bag is about to become as scarce as, well, some bags.
To comply with the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty intended to cease production of ozone-depleting substances (and which forced a change in the construction of refrigerators and air conditioners), America's Food and Drug Administration is reminding asthmatics that Primatene Mist inhalers — the only over-the-counter inhaler sold in the US — will no longer be available starting January 1st.
Even if your airways are clear, you’re probably familiar with the Primatene commercials that promised relief for a bronchial asthma attack within 15 seconds of a single pump. The simple brand message – “fastest-type asthma relief without a prescription” – remained virtually unchanged over the years. The problem, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, is what helps make that asthma relief so fast: the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that propel the active ingredient, the hormone epinephrine.
Other inhalers provide asthma relief, albeit with a different medicine known as albuteol, without requiring CFCs. However, these inhalers, sold by a number by a number of pharmaceutical brands including GSK (Ventolin), require a prescription, so the FDA is advising asthmatics to get an albuteol prescription as soon as possible.
Consumer reaction, judging by comments on blogs and articles including on CNN and the Wall Street Journal, range from fear (“I don’t have health insurance – how can I afford the prescription inhalers?”) to annoyance (“I have prescription inhalers, but I need the convenience of OTC inhalers in a pinch”) to conspiracy (“It’s the fault of environmentalists/liberals/big pharma”) to a shrug (“If your asthma’s so bad that you need an OTC inhaler, you should have a prescription inhaler, anyway.)
As for the manufacturer of Primatene Mist, Armstrong Pharmaceuticals (a subsidiary of Amphastar Pharmaceuticals), a press release states that the company is trying to develop a CFC-free version of the inhaler, but notes, in quite the understatement:
“There will likely be a period of time between December 31, 2011, and the date of FDA approval HFA Primatene Mist product. Please be assured that Armstrong Pharmaceuticals, Inc. is committed to bringing the new product to market in the shortest time possible once the product is approved by the FDA.”
Considering how long it takes a drug to be developed and approved by the FDA (couldn’t the brand have worked with the agency to have an environmentally safe product on the market before the deadline?) asthmatics would breathe easier by hoarding the remaining Primatene Mists (after all, it’s not illegal to use them after the deadline) and securing a prescription for the albuteol inhaler.
In other words, don’t hold your breath.