County forces drug manufacturers to pay for disposal; lawsuit likely

SEATTLE -- The King County Board of Health voted unanimously Thursday to require drug manufacturers to pay for the collection and disposal of unwanted medications, becoming the second county in the United States to do so and opening the county up to a lawsuit from manufacturers.

"I am proud of my fellow board members for passing this historic rule and regulation," Board of Health Chair Joe McDermott said. "The Board took strong action today to close a gap in the comprehensive response to misuse and abuse of medicines."

The new rule and regulation will require drug producers selling medications for residential use in King County to provide and promote secure medicine return systems approved and overseen by Seattle & King County Public Health at no cost to the consumer.

The county's Hazardous Waste Management Program will initially pay for 200 uniform boxes to be placed in pharmacies and police stations where consumers can drop off unwanted medications anytime.

Still, the majority of costs will fall on drug producers, who will pay for collection supplies at drop-off sites, prepaid mailers for disabled or homebound residents, and collection events. Manufacturers would cover the cost to transport collected medicines and dispose of them by incineration. They would also pay for program promotion and evaluation, administrative costs and fees to Public Health to cover annual review and oversight.

Drug manufacturers who do not comply with the new rule and regulation would face fines of up to $2,000 per day.

California's Alameda County passed a similar requirement on drug manufacturers in 2012 but has since been sued by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) who claim the requirement is unconstitutional.

"I would be quite surprised if my board did not sue King County," said PhRMA legal counsel Marjorie Powell last month after a public hearing. "That is not a threat; it's a statement of fact."

Powell said drug producers should not have to pay for the disposal of unwanted medications and compared the requirement to asking wine makers to pay for bottle recycling.

"If this is a county priority then they should add it to the garbage collection fee," Powell said. "Pharmacy companies don't know how to operate garbage collection. They would have to stop doing research and start becoming garbage collectors."

But, Public Health Board member and Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin said the new drug disposal system is just "good product stewardship."

"A convenient take back system will keep drugs out of the hands of children and teenagers," he said.

More people die in Washington from overdoses due to prescription medicines than from heroin and cocaine combined, and 32 percent of child poisoning deaths are caused by someone else's prescription medication.

"The more effective solution to the drug abuse crisis is prevention," said Board member Dr. Bud Nicola. "Making it easy for residents to use a take-back system means fewer drugs in medicine cabinets, leading to fewer overdoses and poisonings."

The new King County regulation will apply to prescription and non-prescription drugs, including pills, liquids and creams. It would exclude over-the-counter drugs that are regulated as cosmetics, such as toothpaste, sunscreen, medicated shampoos and vitamins and supplements.

Drug producers will have 12 months to submit a "stewardship plan" for drug return and three months after that to implement it.

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