California County Pushes Drugmakers To Pay For Pill Waste

Jan 3, 2014
Originally published on January 3, 2014 8:43 pm

The leftover prescription drugs you have around your house are at the center of a battle between small government and big pharmaceutical companies.

The immediate aim is to have the pharmaceutical companies take care of disposing of extra drugs. But Alameda County in northern California wants to make manufacturers think about the life cycles of their products — from their creation to what happens when they're no longer needed.

Mary Hill has been accumulating prescription drugs in her Oakland office. A social service coordinator at a retirement home, Hill has been storing leftover drugs from residents who have died or don't know how to get rid of them safely.

"I have here morphine from people who have cancer. I have Vicodin and methadone," says Hill, while rummaging through two bags of pill bottles and containers.

Hill doesn't want the drugs to get into the hands of recreational users, or into drinking water. Her office has no easy way to dispose of them. If she drives away with the drugs, she could be stopped by police for possession of drugs that don't belong to her.

Alameda County has a prescription drug disposal program. There are a couple dozen locations, but some people don't think that's enough.

"Our program that's in place just isn't extensive enough. It needs to be much more convenient," says Nate Miley, an Alameda County supervisor. He proposed a county ordinance that requires drugmakers to design and pay for a comprehensive drug take-back program.

And, he says, the wrong people are paying for it.

"This is not something taxpayers should be paying for," says Miley. "It seems like when products have reached their life cycle, it should be the responsibility of the manufacturers to have a way of properly disposing of those products."

Alameda County's ordinance creates the first drug take-back program in the country that puts the responsibility squarely on companies. States and the federal government have considered similar measures, but none has passed.

"We can't wait for Sacramento. We can't wait for the federal government," says Miley. "We're hoping that other counties will see what we've done and have the courage to follow our lead."

In fact, some California counties are considering similar laws. In Seattle, the King County council has passed an ordinance like Alameda's.

Pharmaceutical companies are noticing. "A waste disposal authority is something that's not in the institutional competence of manufacturers," says Mit Spears, general counsel for the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.

The trade group challenged the constitutionality of the Alameda County ordinance in federal court, and lost. Now the drug companies have appealed. Now the pharmaceutical industry is challenging the King County law, too.

"Local governments have been in the waste disposal business for a long, long time and ... they know more about how to take care of their citizens and what the needs are," says Spears.

He says PhRMA isn't opposed to take-back programs. But if pharmaceutical companies have to pay for them, the costs will be passed onto consumers.

"We think it's unfair to basically put upon a Medicaid or Medicare beneficiary in Tennessee a higher cost on their product so that we to pay for a state-of-the-art take-back program in Alameda [County], California," says Spears.

Spears says PhRMA questions whether county governments can regulate interstate commerce.

But Heidi Sanborn of the California Product Stewardship Council says the discussion should focus on responsibility.

Whether it's electronics, pharmaceuticals or other consumer products, Sanborn says pushing manufacturers to be responsible for their waste makes them rethink production.

"If they have an economic incentive that drives them to redesign and rethink the product, what it's made out of, how it works, how long it lasts, then we'll see hopefully greener design," says Sanborn.

Pharmaceutical companies must deliver a safe drug disposal plan to Alameda County this May.

In the meantime, California lawmakers will look at a state proposal to force the industry to pay for its waste.

Copyright 2014 Capital Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.capradio.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The leftover prescription drugs sitting around your house are at the center of a fight between small government and big pharmaceutical companies. Two West Coast counties have passed laws requiring drug makers to pay for the safe disposal of unused medications. In Sacramento, Pauline Bartolone reports that these laws are part of a broader movement, forcing manufacturers to rethink how they do business.

PAULINE BARTOLONE, BYLINE: Mary Hill is a social service coordinator at a retirement home in Oakland, California. She's been accumulating prescription drugs in her office.

MARY HILL: I have here morphine from people like who have cancer. I have Vicodin.

BARTOLONE: Hill's been storing leftover drugs from residents who have died or don't know how to get rid of them safely.

HILL: This is methadone.

BARTOLONE: Hill is in a quandary. She wants to keep the drugs away from recreational users and out of the water supply, but the retirement home has no formal way to dispose of the drugs. And if she drives the drugs offsite she could be stopped for possession of pharmaceuticals that don't belong to her.

HILL: We don't want to put it in the garbage bin outside. They can't flush it, so I don't know what to do.

BARTOLONE: Alameda County has a safe drug disposal program at a couple dozen locations. But Alameda County's supervisor, Nate Miley, says the program needs to be more convenient and the wrong people are footing the bill. He authored a local ordinance that requires drug makers to design and pay for a comprehensive take-back program.

NATE MILEY: This is not something taxpayers should be paying for. It seems like when products have reached their life cycle, it should be the responsibility of the manufacturers to have a way of properly disposing of those products.

BARTOLONE: Alameda County has the first producer-responsibility-drug-take-back law in the country. Miley says the local government stepped up because states and the federal government have not.

MILEY: We can't wait for Sacramento. We can't wait for the federal government. We're hoping that other counties would see what we've done and have the courage to follow our lead.

BARTOLONE: Pharmaceutical companies challenged Alameda County's ordinance in federal court. The local law was upheld and drug makers have appealed. Another county in the Seattle, Washington, area is following Alameda's lead. And now the pharmaceutical industry is challenging their law too.

MIT SPEARS: Running, if you will, a waste disposal authority is something that's really not in the institutional competence of manufacturers.

BARTOLONE: Mit Spears is general counsel for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, or PhRMA.

SPEARS: Local governments have been in the waste disposal business for a very, very long time and, and they know more about it. They know more about how to take care of their citizens and what the needs are.

BARTOLONE: Spears also says if pharmaceutical companies have to pay for the programs, industry will pass the costs on to consumers.

SPEARS: We think it's unfair to basically put upon a Medicaid or a Medicare beneficiary in Tennessee a higher cost on their product so that we can pay for a state-of-the-art take-back program in Alameda, California.

BARTOLONE: PhRMA questions whether local governments can regulate interstate commerce. But Heidi Sanborn of the California Product Stewardship Council says the discussion should focus on responsibility.

HEIDI SANBORN: Is the appropriate role of government to pay for the end of life for products put on the market that have an end-of-life cost? Or is it the appropriate role of the private sector to design life cycle systems that are basically cradle to cradle?

BARTOLONE: Whether it's electronics, pharmaceuticals or other consumer products, Sanborn says pushing manufacturers to be accountable for their waste makes them rethink production.

SANBORN: If they have an economic incentive that drives them to redesign and rethink the product, what it's made out of, how it works, how long it lasts, then we'll see hopefully greener design. And that's ultimately our goal.

BARTOLONE: Pharmaceutical companies must deliver a safe drug disposal plan to Alameda County this May. In the meantime, California lawmakers will look at a state proposal to force the industry to pay for its waste. For NPR News, I'm Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.