Alameda County First to Demand Drug Companies Pay for Disposal

Friday, July 27, 2012

Alameda County spends around $330,000 a year disposing of prescription drugs before they endanger public health or the environment. On Tuesday, it became the first county in the country to tell drug makers to pick up the tab for collecting their own product.

The county sheriff’s office maintains 28 prescription drug drop-off boxes for expired or abandoned drugs. The pharmaceutical industry, which opposed the ordinance, says it isn’t clear how responsibility for collecting the drugs will transfer. Manufacturers were given until July 1, 2013, to submit a proposal, either jointly or individually, for an independent disposal program.

Once the program kicks in, drug companies would be fined $1,000 for noncompliance.

Environmentalists and health advocates say that a private program may prove to be more efficient and serve as incentive for manufacturers to make drugs that are less harmful when discarded.

The Alameda law is based on a program started 15 years ago in British Columbia, Canada, which allows consumers to turn in drugs at pharmacies for no charge. A study in 2009 found that the volume of drugs turned in went steadily up and participation by pharmacies was very high.

Besides complaining about the cost and vagaries in the law, the pharmaceutical industry has expressed skepticism, in general, about the advantage of disposal programs. Industry representatives say there is no evidence showing drug take-back programs help the environment.

“Instead of waiting to see what works, we're running off without good data to put a program into place that's very vague, very general and, ultimately, going to be very difficult for us to provide,” industry spokesman Ritchard Engelhardt told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Alameda program will unfold even as the threat of litigation hovers nearby. The industry has not pledged its commitment to participating even as it voluntarily participates in a similar San Francisco pilot program.

Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, is confident Big Pharma will overcome its doubts and successfully create the drug disposal program in Alameda. “If they can create drugs, they can figure out how to collect pills,” she said.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:     

Alameda Prescription Drug Measure Forces Companies to Pay for Disposal (by Fenit Nirappil, Associated Press)

Alameda County Passes Law That Makes Drugmakers Pay for Disposing of Unused Drugs (by Angela Woodall, Oakland Tribune)

Drug-Disposal Law OKd in Alameda County (Stephanie M. Lee, San Francisco Chronicle)

Pharmaceutical Disposal Programs for the Public: A Canadian Perspective (by Edith Gagnon, Health Canada Environmental Impact Initiative) (pdf)

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