Eye-Opening Investigation Shows OTC Narcan Hard to Find in Pharmacies

OTC Narcan can be confusing and hard to find in pharmacy shelves.

Eye-Opening Investigation Shows OTC Narcan Harder to Find in Stores Than Thought - Learn How Breaking Stigma is Key

It's no secret that Narcan is a life-saving medication, but that still doesn't make it easier to find (or ask for). The FDA approved this medication for over-the-counter use recently in March of 2023, paving the way for it to be sold in major pharmacies. However, despite its importance and availability through various channels, it has been reported that Narcan is actually harder to find in stores than many people originally thought. A closer look and investigation by NBC News reveals that the stigma surrounding opioid use and addiction is still very much present, leading to barriers to access to this crucial medication.

Narcan in Pharmacies

As mentioned earlier, the FDA's 2023 approval of OTC Narcan was a landmark in helping provide this life-saving medication to those who may need it. This approval ensured that Narcan, also known as naloxone, is available without a prescription and can be purchased in various pharmacies across the country.

Narcan No Longer Needs a Prescription

Narcan is such a household name in today's world due to the increasing number of opioid overdose deaths. However, it was only in 2017 that this opioid antagonist became available through prescription.

Narcan prescription mandates have developed since 2017, with different states enacting laws such as prescribing the medication when prescribing opioids, if prescribing 50 to 90 mg or more of morphine equivalent (MME) daily, or when a patient has a history of substance abuse. Despite these state mandates, obtaining Narcan wasn't always easy for those who needed it.

While a prescription is no longer needed to obtain the life-saving medication, and it is available in pharmacies across the nation, this doesn't mean it's any easier to access. On the contrary, continued stigma, the pricing of Narcan, and varying availability in different pharmacies and gas stations has made it difficult for those in need to obtain Narcan.

Asking for Help - Not Easy for Some

When visiting a pharmacy or store, the normal thing for someone to do when having difficulty tracking down an item is to ask a store associate. Easy enough, right? Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily the case for people in need of Narcan.

Customer Service Variability

Even if the person buying the medication musters up the courage to ask for help, not all pharmacists are well-versed in naloxone and its uses. While NBC News' investigation found that all CVS Pharmacists are trained to administer Narcan, this isn't the case for all pharmacies. Some pharmacists may not be familiar with naloxone or may hold negative attitudes toward those struggling with addiction, making it difficult to obtain the medication.

One bad attitude can be enough for someone to hesitate to ask for help, especially in such a vulnerable situation. This highlights the importance of not only making naloxone readily available but also providing education and training to pharmacists and store associates on how to handle these situations with empathy and understanding.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Another unfortunate finding from NBC's investigation is that while the medication may be available in pharmacies, it isn't always readily visible or advertised. Some stores may keep Narcan behind glass cases, making it difficult for those in need to locate and obtain the medication.

Pharmacies also tend to organize Narcan in different sections, from behind the register to the front of the register. The investigation even found some packages wrongly organized in a COVID-19 test section. In short, there really is no section dedicated to opioid overdose prevention in most pharmacies. 

Additionally, there may be little to no promotional materials about Narcan, making it even more challenging for people to know that it's available without a prescription. Unlike popular medications like Tylenol or allergy medicine, Narcan may not be advertised in stores or featured in pharmacy flyers. This lack of promotion perpetuates the stigma surrounding addiction and contributes to the difficulty in obtaining this life-saving medication, even if it's sold at a pharmacy.

The Cost Barrier

While obtaining Narcan may not require a prescription anymore, it can still come with a hefty price tag. A single box (with two packages of Narcan spray inside) can cost up to $49.99 without insurance, while the lower end is $45. This high cost may deter some individuals from purchasing the medication.

In addition, smaller family-owned pharmacies might charge even more for Narcan, as they don't receive the same bulk discounts that larger chain pharmacies do. This cost barrier can be especially challenging for those who are uninsured or underinsured and may not have the means to afford such a high-priced medication.

Fortunately, states such as California are in talks of obtaining cheaper, generic forms of Narcan to make it more accessible and affordable for all individuals. However, the road to approval for generic naloxone isn't short or easy, leaving many individuals in need without a lower-cost alternative and dependent on Narcan on store shelves.

Not All On Board

While some gas stations and pharmacies may carry OTC Narcan, not all are on board with the idea. NBC's investigation found that many gas stations, which usually sell cigarettes and alcohol, have been hesitant to carry Narcan. Fear of promoting drug use or being exposed to liability might be a factor.

Pharmacy chains such as CVS continue to share that doses are readily available and for sale. But, for those who can't quickly find Narcan in their local pharmacy, gas stations, and other businesses that are hesitant to carry the medication, might be the only option - for better or for worse!

The Importance of Breaking Stigma

While pricing is difficult to control, one common thread among these barriers is the stigma that Narcan carries. Whether stigma leads to pharmacies hiding the medication in plain sight, makes it difficult for people to ask for help from associates and pharmacists, or even prevents it from being sold at all, the stigma surrounding addiction and Narcan is very real.

Breaking this stigma is essential in ensuring that individuals who need Narcan have access to it. Education on the lifesaving abilities of Narcan, as well as understanding that addiction is a disease and not a choice, can help break down barriers and make it easier for individuals to obtain this crucial medication.

In addition, there are several things to keep in mind if you're buying OTC Narcan for yourself or a loved one.

  1. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Whether you need help locating Narcan or need assistance administering it, don't let the stigma surrounding addiction stop you from getting the help you need and ask pharmacists and store associates for help. It's their job!
  2. Spread awareness and advocate for access to Narcan. By sharing information and advocating for easier access to this medication, you can help break down stigma and save lives. Asking your local pharmacy to move Narcan out from behind the counter or to carry it at all can make a huge difference.
  3. Look elsewhere besides pharmacies. Don't give up if you're having trouble obtaining Narcan at your local pharmacy. There are other options, such as community health centers and harm reduction organizations, that provide Narcan for free or at a reduced cost.
  4. Educate yourself on how to use Narcan. It's essential to not only have Narcan on hand but also know how to administer it correctly in case of an emergency. Many organizations offer training and resources on how to properly use Narcan.

Access to Life-Saving Medication

Ultimately, having Narcan is not a sign of weakness, but rather a proactive step towards saving lives. The more individuals who have access to this medication, the more lives can be saved. While NBC News' investigation did highlight the difficulties of obtaining Narcan, it also shed light on the need for increased education and awareness surrounding this life-saving medication. By breaking down stigma and advocating for easier access to Narcan, we can help prevent unnecessary overdose deaths and support those struggling with addiction.