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updated: Apr 19, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Michael Bowker

Goleta resident Lisa was in her kitchen when her 3-year-old daughter Anna walked in with her hand out. "Mommy, these taste terrible," Anna said with a frown.

In her open palm were several pills. Lisa, who asked her real name not be used, realized they were heart medicine pills her father had stored in a box in a closet the year before.

"Anna, honey, how many of those did you take?" Lisa said, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. "Two, I think," Anna answered. The 911 operator instructed Lisa to take her daughter to the hospital immediately, where doctors rushed her into the emergency room. After a two-hour ordeal, which included having Anna's stomach pumped, she was released.

Others across the country have not been so lucky. The number of accidental overdose deaths from prescription drugs has been on a shocking incline since 1980. More than 20,000 Americans died in 2008 of accidental prescription drug overdoses, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, outnumbering deaths from heroin and cocaine combined and surpassing traffic accidents as a leading cause of death in the U.S.

Despite these sobering numbers, statewide efforts to make it easier for consumers to rid their homes of unused prescription drugs took a major hit earlier this week. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) withdrew legisltion that would have shifted the cost and management of unused drug collection to pharmaceutical companies.

"I'm disappointed," said Jackson, who blamed a lack of support from colleagues in the Senate for her decision to shelve the bill. "But, I always expected change of this magnitude to be a multi-year effort. I look forward to taking the next several months to determine how to best move forward with legislation next year."

Jackson's bill was based loosely on a Canadian model that has been highly successful in helping consumers dispose of unused legal drugs. Under Canadian law, disposal bins are available in highly public places such as pharmacies and the pharmaceutical companies foot the bill.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) withdrew legislation that would have shifted the cost of unused drug collection to pharmaceutical companies. (Jenny Hirsohn photo illustration)

Five disposal sites at each of the sheriff's substations throughout the county cost taxpayers about $154,000 per year to operate, according Salud Carbajal, First District County Supervisor.

As expected, pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. have put up stiff opposition to any legislation that would shift costs of drug collection to them.

The pharmaceutical industry is dead set against shifting costs from municipalities. An effort in 2012 by Alameda County to establish a similar program was met with a lawsuit filed by three groups, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Generic Pharmaceutical Association (GPhA) under constitutional grounds that such a regulation would violate commerce laws.

PhRMA's associate general counsel, John Murphy, said it would be a mistake if SB 1014 passed, arguing that the program should be municipally run, and not the responsibility of out-of-state companies. A U.S. District Court found last fall that Alameda's ordinance was not unconstitutional, and the case is now on appeal.

"Today, more than 50 percent of all prescription drugs are never used by those gaining the prescription," Jackson said. "Far too often, they are ending up in the hands of children and teenagers. We need to do everything we can to halt this problem."

The danger of unused prescription drugs does not stop at potential overdosing within homes, according to Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council in Sacramento. Tossed into landfills or flushed away by consumers, several reports the Environmental Protection Agency show that traces of opiate-based drugs, traces of birth control and mood-stabilizing drugs are increasingly ending up in our water systems.

More than 50 percent of all prescription drugs are never used by those gaining the prescription, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said.

"The long-term effects are still unknown, but we do know that traces of nearly all prescription drugs are showing up in our water," she said. "We have to do something about this and we need to do it quickly." The CPSC was a sponsor of Jackson's bill, as well as legislation to require manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal of products such as mercury florescent lamps and batteries. Jackson said she will move forward with legislation that would reinstate model guidelines, developed by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), for local governments wanting to create their own drug take-back programs.

Jackson added that she hopes that the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry will "step up and assume responsibility and join us as a partner in tackling legislation that helps solve the statewide challenges created by unused prescription drugs."

The cost of the statewide program would be about $5 million, according to Jackson, but it is clear that the pharmaceutical companies fear that other states would follow California's lead and the cost of operating collection and disposal sites would ultimately be considerably more.

An alliance between lawmakers hoping to help cut into the deadly issue of legal drug overdoses and pharmaceutical companies appears unlikely at this point. At the ideological heart of the showdown is the often fought-over concept of "corporations" vs. an "overregulating" government.

Jackson highlights that the pharmaceutical industry is the third most profitable industry in America (behind the communication tech equipment and Internet services industries) and should take responsibility for the dangers its unused products pose.

"The pharmaceutical industry spends more than $227 million in political lobbying, I think they can afford $5 million to help protect the lives of customers," she said.

Jackson pointed out that the cost of running the disposal program would amount to less than one penny per prescription.

At the same time, the overall financial cost to the U.S. economy of prescription drug overdoses is staggering. The federal government estimates that misuse and abuse of prescription drugs costs the U.S. more than $53 billion a year in lost productivity, medical costs and criminal justice costs. That is expected to continue to increase as opiate-based pain-killer prescriptions, which are among those most often involved with deadly overdoses, have skyrocketed in recent years.

Drugs like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin are among the biggest culprits.

Some lawmakers are calling for stricter regulation on doctors who prescribe the drugs, others for increased public education and publicity. No substantive bills that would support these efforts, however, have been forthcoming in the legislature.

In the Alameda case, industry attorneys argued that the ordinance would place an unfair burden on out- of-state manufacturers, who would have to help pay for the drug disposal program. Outside the courtroom, some contend that forcing an industry to pay for the disposal program amounts to government overregulation, and that other industries, such as the auto companies, are not required to pay for the disposal of their products.

This argument is expected to be used in the other consumer-protection bills, currently being drafted by California State legislators, that would require other industries to take up the cost of end-product disposal. Batteries and other products that may have potentially toxic or dangerous effects to human health or the environment are being targeted.

Although Jackson's bill easily passed through the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on a 5-1 vote in late March, she was not able to gain support within the Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee, which was scheduled to hear it on April 21.

"We've been trying hard to bring the pharmaceutical industry in as a partner in helping to create a safer California," said Jackson, "but so far, we've had no luck. From a public health standpoint, this should be a no-brainer. As it looks right now though, we expect to face very stiff opposition from an opponent with unlimited amounts of money."

As for local residents like Lisa, the danger of unused prescription drugs in the household is far more than a philosophical or political issue. Like most people, she knew they were a potential hazard, but seeing Anna lying on a hospital bed made the issue terrifyingly real.

"There are no more unused prescription pills in our house," Lisa said. "Anna is fine, but I'll never forget the fear I felt that day. I wish there was a way we could make people more aware that this horror could happen to them."

Article provided by Mission & State. Learn more at missionandstate.org


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