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California County Pushes Drugmakers To Take Back Unused Pills

Ground zero for a new approach to prescription drug disposal.

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, but she doesn't want them 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 wrote 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 it has appealed.

"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 [Country], California," says Spears.

Spears says PhRMA's legal challenge questions whether county governments can regulate interstate commerce.

But Heidi Sanborn of the California Product Stewardship Council has another question. "Is it 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?"

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.

The deadline for drug companies to submit disposal plans is May.

Supervisor Miley says the county is also helping industry with the possible creation of a separate organization to administer the disposal drug take-back.

He says that could help prevent an eventual challenge of the new law before the Supreme Court.

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

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