Exciting FDA green initiative: Banning over-the-counter asthma inhalers to save the ozone layer

I know what you’re thinking, but no, this didn’t originate with the green braintrust in the Obama administration responsible for such glorious planet-saving measures as the Solyndra loan. It’s part of the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer, which went into effect in 1989; the FDA decided back in 2008 to extend the protocol to chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in asthma products, with a total ban to take effect in 2012. Today’s announcement is essentially just a reminder to asthma sufferers that the ban’s a-comin’ and that they should switch to products that don’t use CFC in case they haven’t already.

The bad news? The only over-the-counter asthma inhaler currently available in the U.S. uses CFC. The worse news? Upwards of one to two million people use that inhaler. The worst news? Prescription inhalers can cost up to three times as much, which means the crusade to rid the planet of this sliver of the CFC supply will operate as a de facto regressive tax on asthma sufferers.

The good news, via Jim Geraghty: “Think of how much smaller the U.S. carbon footprint will be without all of those asthma sufferers around.”

But going green may have some inhaler users seeing red, as the ozone-friendly inhalers cost more. Epinephrine inhalers go for around $20. The alternatives, which contain the drug albuterol, cost $30 to $60.

The FDA finalized plans to phase out the products in 2008, and the only one now sold in the U.S. is Armstrong Pharmaceutical’s Primatene mist. Other inhaler makers have switched to an environmentally friendly propellant called . Both types of inhalers offer relief from symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest tightness, but the environmentally friendly inhalers are prescription-only.

“If you rely on an over-the-counter inhaler to relieve your asthma symptoms, it is important that you contact a health care professional to talk about switching to a different medicine to treat your asthma,” Badrul Chowdhury, FDA’s director of pulmonary drug division, said in a statement.

Why are the green inhalers so much more expensive? Well, because they’re green: The patents on inhalers that use CFC expired long ago but the patents on the new environmentally safe hydrofluoroalkane inhalers will be in effect until 2015 at least. You’d think the FDA might have held off on banning CFC for a few years until the patents lapsed, at least, so that lower-income asthma sufferers wouldn’t have to choose between their wallets and, er, breathing. Ah well; we’ll probably end up subsidizing them until either the patent expires or asthma technology figures out a way to drive down the cost. Exit quotation from asthma sufferer Megan McArdle (via this Weekly Standard), commenting on the joys of green breakthroughs: “Er, industry also knew how to make low-flow toilets, which is why every toilet in my recently renovated rental house clogs at least once a week. They knew how to make more energy efficient dryers, which is why even on high, I have to run every load through the dryer in said house twice. And they knew how to make inexpensive compact flourescent bulbs, which is why my head hurts from the glare emitting from my bedroom lamp. They also knew how to make asthma inhalers without CFCs, which is why I am hoarding old albuterol inhalers that, unlike the new ones, a) significantly improve my breathing and b) do not make me gag.”

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