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Drug Take-Back Bill Faces Opposition

A bill introduced last month in the California Legislature would make pharmaceutical manufacturers responsible for the end of their products’ lives — not just the beginning.

SB 1014 by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) would require drug manufacturers to create, finance and manage a statewide system for collecting and disposing of unwanted drugs. Jackson said new rules are needed to address a growing problem of prescription drug abuse, accidental poisonings and traces of pharmaceuticals found in California drinking water.

Jackson’s bill is modeled after an Alameda County ordinance — the first governmental effort in this country to make drug manufacturers responsible for product stewardship. Three pharmaceutical organizations filed suit against the Alameda County ordinance, which requires drug makers to fund and operate a countywide take-back program for unused prescription drugs.

A federal court judge ruled in favor of Alameda County last summer, rejecting the challenge by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. The case is now on appeal to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jackson’s bill will be heard in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee next week.

‘Should Not Be Municipal Function’

Physicians prescribe more than $10 billion in drugs every year in California, “but as much as 40% to 50% of those drugs can end up unused,” Jackson said.

The drugs — usually pills — gather dust in medicine cabinets until kids find them or they get flushed down toilets or thrown into landfills, Jackson said.

“Keeping track of and properly disposing of these drugs should not be a municipal function, and it should not be paid for by taxpayers,” Jackson said.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America disagrees.

“PhRMA believes strongly that the creation of a take-back program like that proposed by SB 1014 is a mistake,” said John Murphy, associate general counsel for PhRMA.

“It places the entire responsibility for the execution, finance, management and administration of otherwise municipal operations on pharmaceutical manufacturers and shifts the costs and burden of such local programs to out-of-county consumers and companies,” Murphy wrote in an email response to questions from California Healthline.

Murphy said Jackson’s bill would “assuredly burden California’s health care system without addressing the underlying issues of prescription drug abuse and diversion due to unused and expired medicine, or impacting environmental quality in a substantive way.”

Jackson said she has invited PhRMA representatives as well as officials from other organizations to participate in the crafting of statewide legislation addressing these problems.

“We have had no success in getting them to the table,” Jackson said. “If they’re not willing to be part of the solution then we’ll have to move forward on our own. I took what I see as an intelligent and reasonable ordinance drafted by the county of Alameda and tweaked and expanded it to cover the entire state,” Jackson said.

Other city and county governments in California have drug disposal programs in place, but Alameda’s is the only one requiring pharmaceutical companies to create and pay for the program.

California has 305 safe drug disposal sites, an inadequate number for a state the size of California with 38 million residents, according to Jackson.

“While a number of local governments have admirably stepped up to establish their own drug take-back programs, it’s the taxpayers who end up footing the bill for this, with no assistance from the multibillion dollar drug industry,” Jackson said. “We are hoping that the industry will join us in sharing the responsibility for what happens to these unused medications.”

The bill is sponsored by the California Product Stewardship Council, Clean Water Action, the California Alliance of Retired Americans, the City and County of San Francisco, and Alameda County.

PhRMA Predicts Costs Will Rise; Jackson Disagrees

In a letter to Jackson last week, PhRMA Vice President Merrill Jacobs wrote:

“Secure disposal is a complex issue and the legislation, as drafted, is impractical and will have numerous unintended consequences, including possibly increasing health care costs.”

Jackson said she was puzzled by the claim that costs might rise.

“There’s been a successful take-back program in place for almost 15 years in British Columbia and the drug companies — the same companies we’re talking about in California — aren’t complaining about it and prices haven’t gone up there,” Jackson said.

The Vancouver, British Columbia, program — similar in many ways to Jackson’s proposal — costs about $400,000 a year and annually diverts more than 110,000 pounds of medicine from improper use or disposal, according to Take Back Your Meds, a group of environmental and health organizations.

Similar programs are in operation in Italy, Spain and France, according to Take Back Your Meds.

Neither Jackson nor PhRMA officials had an estimate for how much a statewide take-back program might cost in California. Jackson said “the cost would be minimal.”

“Remember these companies are making billions and billions of dollars every year. The cost of these take-back programs we’re proposing would be minimal. They can certainly afford it without hurting their profit margins too much,” Jackson said.

Jackson expects opposition to her bill will be well-funded and well-organized.

“Pharmaceutical manufacturers are one of the big boys in the game,” Jackson said. “I’m sure there will be very intense lobbying against this. Pharmaceutical manufacturers produce some lifesaving medications, and we all should be thankful to them for that, but I think it’s time for them to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, not just the early, profitable stages.”

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