Drug makers’ take-back role

Most of us are familiar with the prescription medicine take-back program offered by Snohomish County law enforcement agencies, which allows residents to drop off unused prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications for safe and proper disposal at local police stations.

And most of us still have a bottle or more of an unused or expired medication in our medicine cabinets. Awareness of the program, in operation since 2009, is growing. Beginning in 2010 nearly 3,100 pounds of medications were collected by the program. The increase has been steady, and in 2014 more than 8,000 pounds were collected.

And secure collection is the best method for disposal; flushing expired medications down the toilet or tossing them in the trash isn’t an option as they can then pollute streams and groundwater.

To recap why this is important:

More than one-third of all medications go unused, most sitting in medicine cabinets where they pose a poisoning threat to young children and seniors, a temptation to older youths and are open to theft by visitors or burglars. Poisonings remain the leading cause of unintentional deaths and injury in the county, according to the Snohomish Health District. Likewise, a statewide survey of youths shows that 73 percent of teens say it’s easy to get prescription drugs from the family medicine cabinet.

While all misused medications can pose a health threat, there is particular attention currently on prescription opioids and the part they play in heroin addiction in the county. Again, Snohomish Health District data shows that 91 percent of those who use heroin reported having abused prescription opioids first.

Even with a large volume of drugs left uncollected, the current drop-off program has been costly for the Snohomish Health District to oversee and for law enforcement agencies in the county to operate. Departments must stockpile the drugs in a secure location until they can be taken to an incineration facility. Likewise, the health department, the county and the cities don’t have the resources to promote the program or educate the public about proper disposal.

But there is a solution, and the model is in how we already are recycling electronic waste: The producer pays for disposal. It should work for drugs as it now works for old computers.

The Snohomish Health District’s board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed ordinance to require the pharmaceutical industry to provide the financial support for a drug take-back program in the county. It’s a system that’s already in operation in California’s Alameda and San Francisco counties and is getting ready to launch in King County in our state.

Under the district’s proposal, a private contractor with financial support from all drug makers who supply medications in the county, would establish medication dropboxes at pharmacies and other medical facilities, as well as overseeing collections from the dropboxes at police stations.

As it has been elsewhere, the Snohomish Health District’s ordinance has been opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, but a court challenge isn’t anticipated. Alameda County’s ordinance was challenged in court and was upheld by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to hear a challenge to the 9th Circuit’s ruling.

Legislation at the state level has been considered for years, but blocked repeatedly by the industry, which is why the health districts in King and Snohomish counties are now pursuing it.

Based on the costs to producers in the Alameda program, the Snohomish Health District estimates it will cost about $570,000 annually to run the program here, but that represents only a tenth of 1 percent of the $561 million in prescription medications sold in Snohomish County alone.

The pharmaceutical industry will complain about the costs that will have to be passed on to the consumer, but it amounts to only pennies per prescription, and it’s a cost county taxpayers already are having to bear. Shifting financial responsibility to the producers will lift the financial burden from the health district and from law enforcement agencies.

Confronting opioid addiction in the county, as well as the larger drug abuse problem, requires more than one approach, one that treats it as a public health problem by addressing responsible pain management practices by physicians, increased availability of addiction treatment programs and health and education programs that can help prevent addiction in the first place.

A well-financed drug take-back program is a necessary part of that effort.

Pat Slack, commander of the county’s regional Drug and Gang Task Force has referred to medicine cabinets as the “biggest drug dealers” in our communities.

We urge the health board to adopt the ordinance before it on Tuesday. A comprehensive drug take-back program, one supported by an industry that has the ample financial resources to support it, can help put that drug dealer out of business.

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