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Drug companies should step up to disposal problems

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 7, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
February 7, 2012 5:17 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

We’re all guilty of it – squirreling leftover medicine away on the off chance we might need it someday. When we go to use it, we discover it’s years past its expiration date. So we dump it in the garbage can or, if we’re feeling more responsible, flush it down the toilet.

Neither option – keeping it or dumping it – is a good one. When unused medication isn’t disposed of, it can poison children. When it’s disposed of improperly, it can poison the environment.

What’s needed is a safe, easy, low-cost way of properly disposing of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medication. That’s where Substitute Senate Bill 5234 comes in.

The legislation – the 2012 Secure Medicine Take-Back Bill – would create a statewide system for returning unused or expired medication. Financed and managed by the drug companies that profit from the sales, the private-sector program overseen by state health officials would cost the drug makers about 2 cents per container of medicine and no more than $2.5 million per year.

Beginning in 2014, drugs could be dropped off at participating pharmacies, police stations, hospitals and fire stations. The drugs would be collected and incinerated – the way pharmacies now dispose of unused or expired medication.

The drug companies are fighting the bill, even though they’re required to perform much the same service in other countries. A similar program has been in effect for 14 years in British Columbia.

With more than $4 billion in sales in this state annually – a figure that doesn’t include Walmart – the drug makers could easily afford a take-back program that costs them about a penny for every $16 in sales. They spend $450 million annually in this state in advertising and promoting their products.

Think of the public relations points they could make if they used a little of that PR budget to educate consumers and promote a program that could prevent children from being poisoned and tons of medicine from leaching into the environment.

Because that kind of damage is happening today. When medication is left in homes, it’s a temptation for young children; more than 17,000 calls to the Washington Poison Center in 2009 involved children under the age of 6 taking medicines in the home.

For older children seeking a recreational high, leftover medicine is a different kind of temptation. This state has one of the highest rates of teen prescription drug abuse, with 12 percent of high school seniors using prescription drugs to get high in the last month, according to the state Department of Health. Three out of five teens report that they have easy access to prescription pain relievers – from their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets.

Just throwing unused drug in the trash or flushing them down the toilet isn’t good enough. That sends toxic chemicals into landfills, rivers and Puget Sound. Sewage treatment facilities are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals, and it would cost billions to upgrade wastewater systems in the state.

It’s time for drug companies to devote a tiny fraction of their profits to keeping Washington’s children and waters safer. The Legislature should pass SSB 5234.

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