By Senator John F. Keenan, Massachusetts Senate
On March 16, 2016, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a comprehensive drug abuse prevention bill that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to require drug companies to fund and manage a safe disposal program for unwanted medications. Massachusetts Senator John F. Keenan was the first to introduce the drug take-back portion of this bill to the MA legislature, and acted as an influential proponent of its inclusion in the final law. Below, Senator Keenan cautions us to stay vigilant to PhRMA’s attempts to skirt the law’s intended purpose.
You would think that a group that helped create the opioid epidemic, which certainly has profited from it, and which is acknowledging that its products continue to fuel the epidemic, would offer more to help solve the epidemic than a catchy phrase, a website and a complete abrogation of playing any role in cleaning up the mess.
Yet, that’s what a newly formed group called “My Old Meds” has done. The sponsor of this group is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), made up of representatives of the pharmaceutical industry. Some of these people and the firms they represent are making a lot of money from the sale of prescription painkillers, firms like Purdue Pharma, the people who brought us OxyContin and, more recently, OxyContin for kids.
“My Old Meds” recently brought their message to Massachusetts, advising that unused drugs are often diverted and become fuel for the opioid epidemic, and that old meds should therefore be disposed of at home in the trash or at government sponsored drug disposal sites.
In so advising, the sponsors of “My Old Meds” attempted to wash their hands of any responsibility for the disposal of unused medications, and place it instead on the patient and the taxpayer. Their theory: sell more pills than people need, reap the profits, then make others pay for the cleanup.
Their message was strategically timed, just as Massachusetts was considering legislation to require that pharmaceutical companies themselves become responsible for funding and operating a take-back and disposal program for unused pills. The industry was very comfortable with the arrangement of the past, watching their balance sheets grow in step with the excessive number of pills sold while communities scrambled to address the resulting opioid epidemic. That’s why they introduced their catchy phrase and website. They wanted to appear to be helpful, to convince us that no real change was necessary.
The Massachusetts Legislature was not fooled. We can be proud now of becoming the first state in the nation to require a pharmaceutical product stewardship program.
But now we must expect PhRMA’s campaign for in-home, patient and community funded disposal to continue. They will “educate” the public that they can spend their own money to buy cat litter or other carbon products that make pills “safe” for disposal, or that pills can simply be flushed into our water systems.
We must be vigilant. The new law allows the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to design an alternative stewardship plan, in which manufacturers will be allowed to participate rather than fund and operate their own programs. We must work to prevent the industry from influencing the regulatory process. We cannot let them seek regulations that set a low bar for industry responsibility, and that maximize the share of responsibility falling back onto public systems. We must work to ensure that the Department’s program is robust and effective, not a back door that lets manufacturers again step away from responsibility for safe stewardship of unused medications.
We have taken an important first step, but we must continue to fend off the message that manufacturer responsibility can be satisfied with a slogan and website.
Senator Keenan wrote a follow-up piece related to National Take-Back Day on MassLive. Learn more about Senator Keenan by visiting his website. Please feel free to contact Vivian Futran Fuhrman, PSI’s pharmaceuticals lead, with comments and questions (617-236-4771), or visit the PSI pharmaceuticals webpage for more information.