Posted On: December 17, 2012 by Patrick A. Malone

Drug Companies Oppose Requirements to Take Back Unused Medicine

Prescription drugs undergo scientific and regulatory scrutiny for the simple reason that they are dangerous when not used properly … and sometimes even when they are. Because they pose a threat to public health and the environment, there’s a proper way to dispose of them when they have expired, go unused or no longer are needed.

Because pharmaceutical companies manufacture prescription medicine and because they’re the ones that profit from them, a California law demands that they operate and subsidize a program enabling consumers to turn in unused meds for proper disposal. Is anyone surprised that Big Pharma is fighting this law?

As reported in the New York Times, drug take-back programs generally are run by local or other government agencies. But there’s a building sense that the pharmaceutical industry should assume the responsibility.

Unused and/or unneeded medicine is dangerous to curious small children (see our post about drug-poisoned kids), to teenagers seeking the thrill of experimentation, to drug abusers and because criminals see it as a commodity to be traded or sold. Pills or other medicine flushed down the toilet has been shown to pollute drinking water and disturb the ecosystem.

Various drugs—antidepressants, antibiotics, heart meds and hormones—have been found in waterways. Sewage and drinking water treatment facilities are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals, and trace amounts in drinking water probably aren’t harmful to humans. But larger amounts could adversely affect wildlife—The Times referred to a study that found the antidepressant Prozac in the brains of fish.

In the summer, Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area became the first locality to require drug companies to implement take-back programs. Manufacturers have until July 2013 to submit plans for doing so.

Always quick to protect its rights but less quick to do the right thing, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents brand-name drug companies, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization filed a lawsuit earlier this month to have the law struck down.

Big Pharma claims that the ordinance violates the Constitution in authorizing a local government to interfere with interstate commerce. One of its spokesmen told The Times, “This program is one where the cost is shifted to companies and individuals who are not located in Alameda County and who won’t be served by it.”

He said the program would cost millions and that pharmaceutical companies were “not in the waste disposal business.” (This reminds us of an old Tom Lehrer song satirizing a German-American rocket scientist: “ ‘Once zee rockets are up, who cares where zey come down? Zat’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”)

The president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors told The Times, “It’s just unfortunate that PhRMA would fight this because it would be pennies for them.”

The company take-back program idea is hardly new: Three Canadian provinces have take-back programs subsidized by the pharmaceutical industry, The Times reports, and seven U.S. state legislatures have introduced bills to require drug companies to pay for take-back programs in the last few years. None has passed, but Scott Cassel, founder and chief executive of the Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit group that advocates such programs, told The Times that scores of similar “extended producer responsibility” laws have been enacted in 32 states for other products, such as batteries and mercury-containing thermometers. He was unaware of any that had been struck down on constitutional grounds.

If you have drugs in need of disposal, don’t flush them down the toilet or put them in the trash. Pharmacies generally accept unused drugs, and can advise you how to dispose of leftover drugs safely.

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