Editorial: Drug companies should pay for take-back programs

By The Herald Editorial Board

As the Snohomish Health District continues work to establish a prescription drug “take back” program — one financially supported by the pharmaceutical industry rather than taxpayers — legislation also is under consideration in Olympia that would set up a similar program statewide.

The Snohomish Health District last year passed an ordinance that requires an industry-supported medication stewardship program in the county, replacing the drug take-back service now offered at law enforcement agencies in the county. Such programs already have been launched in some California counties and now statewide in Massachusetts and Vermont. King County was the first to require the pharmaceutical industry to pay for the programs, and has been followed by the Snohomish Health District, as well as by programs in Pierce and Kitsap counties.

Such programs are needed to reduce the dangers caused by the unused medications, especially narcotic prescription drugs, that are left sitting in medicine cabinets and nightstands.

More than a third of all medications go unused. Forgotten in a cabinet, they pose a poisoning threat to young children and seniors, a lure to those considering suicide, a temptation to older youths and an invitation 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.

Of particular concern among local health officials, law enforcement and others are the prescription opioids, such as OxyContin, that have stoked heroin addiction and the opioid crisis at the local, state and national level.

Simply throwing such medications in the trash or flushing them down the toilet are not wise environmental options. The dissolved drugs and chemicals are not filtered out by sewage or septic systems and can be toxic to plants and animals downstream or in the soil.

The county’s current drug take-back program, which allows people to drop off medications at 26 locations at police stations and sheriff’s offices, has been effective, but has required the county — and its taxpayers — to pick up the tab for storage and transportation for proper disposal.

Nor is the current program as convenient as what’s planned, which will allow people to leave medications at pharmacies or for shut-ins to mail in theirs.

Officials with the health district hope that the county’s new program will be running by mid-June.

Jeff Ketchel, environmental health director for the district, said that the contractor selected by pharmaceutical companies to administer the program, MED-Project, is expected to submit an updated proposal for the program by March 12. Its initial proposal, submitted in January, was rejected by the district, which sought minor changes and clarifications. If the district approves the amended proposal, MED-Project would have 90 days to implement it.

With programs set up or starting soon in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties, about half of the state’s population will have access to a industry-supported drug take-back program.

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, has sponsored legislation, House Bill 1047, that would expand the take-back program statewide.

Similar legislation was proposed about six years ago, Peterson said in a phone interview this week, but that was before the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had established standards to assure “chain of custody” for opioids and other controlled substances.

The state law, Peterson said, will be similar to the county programs. And it also will grandfather the existing county programs for 18 months. He has picked up Republican support during hearings before the House Health Care and Appropriation committees. The bill is now before the Rules Committee and could then advance to the floor.

The legislation has strong support among law enforcement, in particularly Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary and the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, as well as backing among suicide prevention advocates, health officials and pharmacies.

Previously, the pharmaceutical industry has opposed the requirement that they pay for such stewardship programs. They’ve complained they are too costly and have said that those costs could be passed on to consumers.

Snohomish Health District officials have previously estimated that it will cost about $570,000 annually to run the program here, but that cost represents only a tenth of 1 percent of the $561 million in prescription medications sold in Snohomish County. And those costs already are being picked up by taxpayers. Any actual costs passed on to consumers should be minimal.

Every unneeded pill that isn’t flushed down a toilet, stolen or misdirected is one less pill that can harm the environment, poison a child, facilitate a suicide or add to the crisis of drug addiction.

At the county level or statewide, people need a convenient way to safety dispose of medications they no longer need.

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