Opinion

Big Pharma should pay to scrap old drugs

From the Editorial Board

Be careful what you have in your medicine cabinet. Soon, with help from Pierce County health authorities and the pharmaceutical industry, you may have more options for discarding your old, potentially harmful drugs.
Be careful what you have in your medicine cabinet. Soon, with help from Pierce County health authorities and the pharmaceutical industry, you may have more options for discarding your old, potentially harmful drugs. MCT

Drug dealers lurk in back alleys, conduct business on street corners and inhabit the dark recesses of our imagination. They are scary lowlifes that moms, dads, teachers and the rest of civil society warn should be avoided like the plague.

But what about the seemingly innocuous drug pusher at home, hanging on the wall of the bathroom? The one with a mirror on the front implicating the user who’s about to open the door, grab a bottle and pop some pills?

Behold the modern American medicine cabinet.

Since 2010, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials have targeted the temptations it contains. Until now, they’ve tapped limited taxpayer resources to install 21 secure drop boxes around the county for people to get rid of old prescription drugs. They also host an annual drug “take-back” event.

We hope the local health board proceeds Dec. 7 with the next logical step. It should pass regulations shifting stewardship — and costs — to pharmaceutical companies. Then, health officials say, medication-return sites will be expanded into every city and town, and a system for people to send in unused drugs by mail will be started.

This action will put Big Pharma on notice: Consumers expect the industry to take the same aggressive stance helping dispose of drugs as it does marketing and selling them.

Medicine cabinets around the South Sound are full of unneeded and expired prescription drugs. They can harm the environment, fuel serious addiction and fool children into accidental overdoses. Last year alone, more than 1,500 Pierce County kids under age 6 came in contact with or were poisoned by unsecured medicine at home, according to the Washington Poison Center.

The bottles of prescription painkillers on the shelf next to the shaving cream are the most dangerously overused drugs of all. More than 800,000 prescriptions for opioids were issued locally in 2015, according to health officials; that’s nearly enough for each of the county’s 844,000 residents.

The extent to which opioid and heroin have become a twin American drug epidemic was underscored Wednesday, when the White House drug czar renewed a call for $1.1 billion in treatment funding that President Obama requested in his budget this year.

Treatment is absolutely critical for people already in the throes of substance abuse. But removing drugs from a person’s easy grasp before addiction spirals out of control costs much less in the long run.

If the health board votes yes, Pierce will join King and Snohomish counties in launching new and improved disposal programs. (Kitsap County is not far behind.) The movement was made possible by a 2014 federal Drug Enforcement Administration rule that authorizes pharmacies, hospitals, drug treatment programs, police agencies and long-term care facilities to take custody of controlled and non-controlled medicines.

Drug companies, predictably, think this is an undue burden and oppose picking up the tab. But local police, doctors, environmental, municipal and drug treatment leaders have voiced support for the health department. Most pharmacies said they would promote the program, even if they don’t have a drop box on-site; they say customers often ask where to discard old drugs.

Fortunately, there’s a growing public awareness that flushing pills down the toilet is bad for the environment; scientists have detected unexpectedly high levels of drugs in Puget Sound waters, fish and other aquatic life. The same goes for dumping medications in the trash; the chemicals can leach out of landfills.

But a standardized, industry-funded disposal program will result in tens of thousands more pounds of nonessential, unwanted and addictive drugs going to their final resting place — signed, sealed and delivered, into an incinerator.

Just think of the extra space you’ll have in your medicine cabinet.

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