Drug companies oppose bill to make them take back medicine

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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More than 200 organizations across the state -- law enforcement agencies, health departments, health care professionals, substance abuse prevention coalitions and environmental groups -- are joining forces to fight prescription drug abuse.

Their goal: State legislation requiring pharmaceutical companies to pay for safe medication disposal, which they say would help prevent drug diversion and abuse.

The proposed legislation -- Senate Bill 5234 and House Bill 1370 -- would require pharmaceutical companies that sell prescription and over-the-counter drugs in Washington to create and run a medication take-back program.

The bills would require producers to manage and finance a nonprofit responsible for collecting and destroying the drugs. The drug companies would have the freedom to design the take-back program -- whether it’s collection sites, regular take-back events or accepting returns via mail. However, the nonprofit must serve every county in the state and every city with more than 10,000 people.

The proposed bill caps the program’s cost at $2.5 million per year. Since the program would not be government-run or -funded, it is considered budget-neutral to the state.

On one side of the legislation debate is Take Back Your Meds, a group representing hundreds of organizations across the state. On the other side are pharmaceutical companies and trade associations.

“We want the pharmaceutical companies to work it into their costs of doing business rather than pushing it onto local law enforcement and counties,” said Margaret Shield with TBYM.

Annual sales of medicines in Washington are about $4 billion. The program would cost drug companies about 1 cent for every $16 in sales, according to TBYM.

Seventeen counties in the state have drug take-back programs; Clark County’s is one of the more robust, Shield said.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments, except the Vancouver Police Department, collect controlled substances at their offices during business hours. Last year, they collected 1,724 pounds of drugs, said Jim Mansfield, with county environmental services. The departments paid to incinerate the drugs. A total cost was not available.

Clark County’s Environmental Services Department also pays to collect and destroy non-controlled substances that residents drop off at pharmacies. Last year, that program cost nearly $6,000, Mansfield said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also pays for nationwide take-back events, typically twice a year. However, Shield said, the DEA is revising regulations for the events. Those changes are expected to be completed this year. Once the rules are updated, the DEA-sponsored events will likely go away, Shield said.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the country’s top pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies, is among the advocates opposing the state legislation.

“If we want to be successful in getting rid of unused medicines, we should go with an approach that already exists and works,” said Jeff Trewhitt, PhRMA spokesman.

“It’s as easy as placing unused prescriptions in a sealable plastic bag and adding kitty litter, sawdust or coffee grounds. The bag is then sealed and put in the trash,” he said.

Other countries require pharmaceutical companies to fund take-back programs. However, similar legislation has not been passed anywhere in the United States.

Trewhitt said there is no definitive research showing that comparable programs reduce the risk of accidental poisonings or accessing medicines that can be abused.

Shield argues that the program is a good place to start.

“The reasons why we have a prescription abuse problem in this country are complicated, and we need to work on all aspects,” Shield said. “Providing a safe and responsible way to take back medications and dispose of them is part of the solution.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.