LA County supes set aside drug take-back proposal, for now

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday not to force the pharmaceutical industry to design and pay for a comprehensive drug and "sharps" take-back plan — at least until November.

Instead, the supervisors agreed to let the industry carry out a public education campaign about existing disposal options, in concert with the county. The board also voted to hold quarterly take-back events for the time being to supplement voluntary efforts by some pharmacies and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

In a 3-0 vote, with Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis abstaining, the board asked the county Department of Public Health to report back in November on how the outreach campaign and various collection efforts are faring.

"Thanks to the leadership of the [supervisors], a broad coalition is coming together to teach, promote and enable proper medication disposal in L.A. County," said a statement issued by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the California Life Sciences Association and other industry groups.

The effort will prove the worth of "private-public partnerships and voluntary programs as opposed to a mandated take-back program," said Priscilla VanderVeer, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. She said the outreach campaign will also include an app that will show where people can turn in medications.

The original proposal, introduced last year by Supervisor Michael Antonovich, would have required pharmaceutical companies to design and pay for the collection and disposal of unused drugs, needles, lancets and other medical "sharps."

Kuehl and Solis said they abstained to express their disappointment that the board failed to force the industry to set up a comprehensive take-back program, as several other California counties have done. Solis issued a statement Wednesday saying she plans to introduce another drug take-back ordinance "later this year."

"The people lost and pharma won," said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council, which backed the original Antonovich proposal.

"The pharma lobby is extremely powerful," she said. "They have a lot of money ... and grassroots advocacy groups don't have that kind of resource or influence."

Antonovich said the compromise reached Tuesday would give the county the opportunity to collect more data on how best to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals and sharps.

"The data isn't the problem," countered Sanborn, who said a take-back program that has operated in Canada for 15 years has produced lots of data. "The problem is a resistance to get to yes on what [the drug industry's] fair share of responsibility is beyond simply educating people to throw it in the trash, mixed with coffee grounds or kitty litter."

Since Antonovich introduced his proposal last year, drug manufacturers had argued that the proposed program would be inefficient and impose added liability risks onto pharmacies that handled returned medications.

Public health and environmental groups argued that there aren't enough drop-off sites to handle the medical waste generated by L.A. County's 10 million residents. 

Amid the lobbying, the supervisors postponed votes on the measure four times.

Five Northern California counties have ordinances that require drug makers to pay for the collection and disposal of unused medicines; one in Santa Cruz is the first in the nation to include medical sharps.

This story was updated on June 15, 2016 to include Supervisor Solis' statement that she intends to introduce a drug take-back proposal later this year.