San Francisco Might be the First Major City to Implement a Drug-Take Back Program

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug take-back programs is a means to remove unwanted, unused and expired drugs (medicines) from the home.  The FDA also states on its website that it is committed to working with “medicine manufacturers to develop alternative, safe disposal policies.”

Drug Makers

San Francisco is leading the way in its efforts to become the first leading U.S. city requiring drug-makers to provide funding and administration for a citywide drug take-back program.   The program would allow consumers to bring unexpired and unused medicines to drop-off locations for safe disposal.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance in late March.   Mayor Edwin Lee can sign the bill by the designated deadline, or it will automatically become law.

The proposed take-back program bill follows the lead of Alameda County, California, which passed a similar law three years ago.  The law established a drug take-back program despite pharmaceutical industry protests.

It seems that Big Pharma (the pharmaceutical industry) has concerns that other local governments will follow suit, passing similar laws to protect people and the environment from the hazards of improperly used, misused, diverted and improperly disposed-of pharmaceutical drugs. The issue is money, of course, as the cost of establishing and administering such proposed drug-take back program would fall upon the pharmaceutical industry.

Pharmaceutical Drug Makers & Responsibility

The purpose of a drug take-back program includes reducing drinking water contaminants resulting from the pharmaceutical drugs entering our water supplies and systems, and lowering the threat and risk of drug abuse and addiction that stems from drugs sitting in home medicine cabinets.

City and county officials have voiced their concerns that drug take-back program costs pose a threat of budget overwhelm.  Thus, governments are turning to the drug makers for the funding of the much needed and warranted drug take-back programs.

The pharmaceutical industry response to the Alameda County measure to establish a drug-industry funded take-back program was a lawsuit, claiming interference with interstate commerce.  Big Pharma also claimed discrimination against out-of-state companies due to “unfairly” placing the burden of costs to industry.

Fortunately, a federal appeals court ruled the Alameda County ordinance did in fact treat all drug-makers equally.  It also ruled that a substantial burden was not placed on interstate business by the ordinance.

The drug makers pursued their legal address to the demand for responsibility and warranted funding by requesting a review of the federal appeals court decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.   The argument posed by the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) was of no evidence that drug take-back programs will alleviate environmental concerns or drug diversion.  They also argued financial costs would be shifted to out-of-state consumers by drug take-back programs.

While PhRMA apparently continues its desire to shunt responsibility for drug take-back programs to the FDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration and volunteer programs, consumer advocates push forward.

Scott Cassel, chief executive of the non-profit Product Stewardship Institute which supports drug take-back programs, sees the passage of the ordinance as a major step forward.  Cassel says the take-back programs hold manufacturers responsible for “post consumer management” of the products they produce.

Follow the Money

According to Cassel, the pharmaceutical industry has demonstrated a long history of fighting laws such as the drug take-back program ordinances.  He points that if they could avoid the cost of litigation by choosing instead to “engage in dialogue” with non-profits and local governments in creating programs “that make economic and environmental sense.”

According to, the net profit of the worlds’ eleven largest drug companies was $714.4 billion dollars (2003-2012). The United States headquarters six of them: Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Abbot Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb---and Eli Lilly.

Healthcare research by worldwide leader IMS Health predicts the global sales of pharmaceuticals to exceed $1 trillion by 2014.  The likely cost of legitimate drug-take back programs seems a pittance in comparison.