Drug companies blast county's pill disposal plan

SEATTLE -- A lawyer representing the pharmaceutical industry threatened to sue King County if officials move forward with a proposed prescription drug disposal plan.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) legal counsel Marjorie Powell delivered that warning to the King County Board of Health this afternoon in a public hearing on a proposed drug return system which would require drug manufacturers to pay for the collection and disposal of unwanted medications.

Referring to a lawsuit the pharmaceutical lobbyist PhRMA has filed against California's Alameda County after they passed a similar requirement on drug manufacturers, Powell said "I see no difference from the things we objected to in Alameda so I see no reason why, when asked, my board would not vote to do the same in King County."

"I'm disappointed that the pharmaceutical companies relied on threatening us rather than trying to cooperate," said Seattle city councilmember and Board of Health member Richard Conlin. "It was a very direct threat. We will look forward to collecting our attorney fees from them."

Powell stood by her statement after the hearing.

"I would be quite surprised if my board did not sue King County," Powell said. "I was trying to tell the board that if they pass this they are likely to face legal action. That is not a threat, it's a statement of fact."

King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, chair of the Board of Health, said he valued Powell's directness, and suggested that the board had considered potential legal action from drug manufacturers long before today's hearing.

"The subcommittee has been well aware of the lawsuit filed by PhRMA in Alameda," he said. "I've been talking with county attorneys and were secure in where we're at and our options to move forward."

The proposed regulation would 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.

Public testimony at the hearing was unanimously in support of the proposed program.

"The board has been really thoughtful and careful in considering this and we have overwhelming public support," Conlin said.

But 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 opperate garbage collection. They would have to stop doing research and start becoming garbage collectors."

The board's Subcommittee on Secure Medicine Return will meet to discuss today's testimony Friday and the board could vote on the proposed rule & regulation as soon as next month. If it is approved, drug producers will have 12 months to submit a "stewardship plan" for drug return and three more months to implement it.