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Panel suggests selling allergy drugs OTC

An advisory committee to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended that three popular allergy drugs are safe enough to be used without a prescription. The FDA does not have to follow the advice of its advisory committee, though it usually does. There is no deadline for making a decision. //

"Drugs are prescription for a reason. They have the ability to do both good and harm. Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec have almost no side effects and are equally effective as the antihistamines that are available over the counter today." said Robert Seidman, WellPoint's chief pharmacy officer.

Anti-allergy medications have been linked to side effects in some users that include reduced alertness, nausea and headache. By prescription, the drugs cost about $80 per month versus $10 to $15 in the 17 nations where the drugs are over-the-counter. The drug makers oppose a switch, which would cost them money.

Usually, drug companies support making a drug over-the-counter only when their patent is about to run out, because doing so at that time extends the period during which makers of generic drugs are prohibited from selling lower-priced versions of the drug.

Claritin's patent is due to expire in 2002, but the company is waging a multi-million-dollar campaign to get it extended. Aventis Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures Allegra, also expressed its disappointment. According to WellPoint, sales of Allegra, Claritin and Zyrtec exceeded $5 billion last year.

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