Reporting from Sacramento — After months of public input and consultation with experts, the state's pharmacy board appeared to be poised to adopt strict new requirements for prescription drug labels last month.
But that changed when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger placed a drugstore industry executive on the board a day before the vote.
CVS/Pharmacy official Deborah Veale provided the vote that killed a plan to require large type on drug labels and instructions and to make oral translation of them available for all non-English speakers.
The proposals had been championed by consumer advocacy groups and senior citizens and minority organizations. They had been fought aggressively by one of Schwarzenegger's biggest donors, the California Retailers Assn., which has contributed $400,000 to his political committees.
"It seems that, in the end, a very few interests with a whole lot of money get their way," said Ramón Castellblanch, a health educator and pharmacy board member who supported the stricter labeling requirements.
Under new draft rules, translations must be provided only if such services are readily available. And the print on medicine labels can be small enough to be a problem for people who are visually impaired, senior citizens' groups say.
"We can't clearly read little tiny type," said Nan Brasmer, 71, president of the California Alliance of Retired Americans.
The latest rules are a reversal from last October, when the pharmacy board voted 6 to 0, with one abstention, to publicize a plan that included a larger-type requirement. It met a standard that the board staff and the National Assn. of Boards of Pharmacy have recommended.
When it came up for final approval last month, the plan was set aside on a 5-4 vote in favor of a smaller type size and the less stringent translation requirement, according to the board's executive officer, Virginia Herold. Veale, whose vote was the deciding factor, could not be reached for comment.
Sen. Ellen Corbett (D-San Leandro) wrote the state law that empowered the pharmacy board to create label guidelines. She said she was "extremely disappointed in the outcome."
The retail and drugstore industries objected to the larger text requirement, their representatives said, because it would have made labels and bottles bigger and thus more costly to produce, as well as cumbersome for consumers.
Bill Dombrowski, president of the retailers association, said he has "discussions with the governor's office about the board of pharmacy all the time" and took issue with any suggestion that Schwarzenegger stacked the board for the Jan. 20 meeting. He noted that Veale filled the one slot reserved in state law for a pharmacist representing chain pharmacies; her predecessor's term ended in December.
The governor left vacant three other spots on what can be a 13-member board. It is composed of pharmacists and others, including a union official, a health educator and a former congressional aide.
Schwarzenegger made two appointments the day before the January meeting, though only Veale attended on the day of the vote. The other appointee is South Pasadena attorney Tappan Zee.
"We have input on our one appointment," Dombrowski said. "The governor asks people for recommendations. That's how it works. . . . That's what we do and we're not ashamed of it."
The California Retailers Assn. has contributed $400,000 to the governor's political campaigns and causes since 2005. Other Schwarzenegger donors also lobbied the pharmacy panel against the label requirements. Among them were Walgreens, which has given $22,300, Rite-Aid ($10,000) and the National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores ($2,500).
Aaron McLear, a Schwarzenegger spokesman, said the governor does not have a position on labeling and was not trying to influence the vote. As for contributions, McLear said, "people donate to the governor and his causes because they believe in his vision for the future of the state."
The new labeling rules are not yet final. The board is set to accept public comments on them for 15 days, probably starting next week, Herold said. She encouraged public feedback before the panel takes final action at its April 21 meeting.
"We truly want comments," Herold said. "We will consider them."