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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 8th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 9 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 9

The great pill debate

A new bill proposes that pharmaceutical companies bear more responsibility for medication disposal


About every month or so, employees with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department transport thousands of pounds of discarded prescription medications to a medical waste company in Long Beach to be incinerated.

These trips are part of Operation Medicine Cabinet, a program run by the Sheriff’s Department and the county Public Works Department that offers residents a safe, convenient way to dispose of unused and expired medications.

People can deposit their unwanted prescriptions in secure drop boxes at sheriff’s stations in cities throughout the county. Law enforcement collects the pills, packages and stores them, and then takes them to be destroyed.

“We take down about two or three truckloads every time we go,” Lt. Brad McVay told the Sun in a recent interview. “And there has to be an armed escort because of what it is that we’re transporting.”

McVay estimated that each trip costs taxpayers roughly $2,000, and that the department spends a total of about $10,000 per year to dispose of the medications.

A new bill introduced by California Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson would require drug manufacturers to create and pay for a statewide stewardship program for the collection and disposal of unwanted or expired prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

However, a new bill recently introduced by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) would shift those costs and more onto the backs of California pharmaceutical companies.

If passed, SB 727 would require drug manufacturers to create and pay for a statewide stewardship program for the collection and disposal of unwanted or expired prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The bill—effective Jan. 1, 2015—would also prohibit manufacturers from selling or distributing certain drugs that aren’t included in a stewardship program.

SB 727 is one of three bills currently making its way through the state Legislature that proposes manufacturing companies take a larger responsibility in the disposal of products, especially those that could pose a threat to public health and safety. The other two bills are related to medical sharps (AB 403) and household batteries (AB 488).

Earlier this year, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors sent letters to the Capitol supporting all three bills.

Leslie Robinson with the county’s Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division said California is the first state to propose a bill requiring manufacturers to create and pay for prescription stewardship programs. She said another bill has been introduced in Pennsylvania that would require retailers to create such programs.

“But programs like these are standard in Europe, and pharmaceutical companies contribute to them,” Robinson said. “Pharmaceutical companies make so much money, it would be such a blink [of the eye] for them to put in a few cents per prescription.”

California’s first successfully implemented product stewardship program started in the fall of 2010 and requires home improvement retailers to collect used paint from their customers. The state of Oregon has a similar program as well.

McVay with the Sheriff’s Department said he’s in favor of having manufacturers help out with the destruction of medications.

Getting rid of expired and unwanted pills more efficiently, he said, would “take the temptation away from our youth” to experiment with drugs they find in the family medicine cabinet.

According to the 2012 Monitoring the Future survey, a national study conducted by the University of Michigan, prescription drugs are one of the most frequently abused controlled substances among American teenagers, along with marijuana.

Safe drug disposal is also good for the environment, McVay said.

“You can’t flush [pills] down the toilet because our current sewage treatment system doesn’t affect some of the chemicals and they end up going into the water untreated,” he said.

Studies show that the chemicals in some prescription drugs, such as birth control, have a negative impact on animals and the environment.

Of course, not everyone is in favor of the bill. Some of the organizations opposed to creating stewardship programs include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America California, the California Healthcare Institute, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the California Chamber of Commerce.

According to the California Manufacturers and Technology Association (CMTA) website, “This bill appears to be a program in search of a problem and will mean added bureaucracy and additional costs to the consumer. It is not against the law to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals in the trash. … While there has been evidence of pharmaceuticals showing up in water, studies have shown that this is, by far, the result of human excretion. It appears to us that if the people of the state really want such a program, they should be made aware of the associated costs and provide an advance disposal fee.”

The language of the bill, however, states that it would prohibit the producer from charging specified fees to recover the costs of its program.

In an interview with the Sun, Sen. Jackson said enacting the program wouldn’t have a significant fiscal impact on the pharmaceutical industry.

“We’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry in California alone,” she said. “They aren’t going to go out of business because the cost to them is so de minimis.”

Gino Di Caro, vice president of communications for CMTA, admitted that this bill, if passed, “wouldn’t be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” but it would add to an already long list of burdens manufacturers have to carry in the state.

Di Caro said the cost of doing business for manufacturers in California is “already exorbitantly higher than the rest of the country,” and includes more expensive utility rates, equipment costs, and workers compensation requirements.

“There comes a point where you simply can’t afford to absorb more costs and still be competitive,” he said.

He said California has lost 33 percent of its manufacturing base over the last 10 years, and that adding more restrictions would only hurt the industry more.

Professionals like Di Caro will have plenty of time to discuss the language of the bill with Jackson and other stewardship program supporters; the bill has been held in subcommittee until next year to allow a better dialogue among the various stakeholders.

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at

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