AUGUSTA — Though a panel of Maine lawmakers approved a proposal last week that would create a permanent collection-and-disposal program for prescription and nonprescription drugs, pharmaceutical companies are hoping to defeat the measure when it is taken up by the full Legislature.

The bill would require pharmaceutical manufacturers to create their own program for customers to return their unused medications so that they can be treated as hazardous waste, rather than flushed down the toilet or taken out with the household trash, the current recommended means of disposal.

Recently, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection conducted tests on three different landfills and confirmed the presence of drugs including antidepressants, antibiotics, steroids, as well as heart-, asthma- and pain-medications in liquid draining from the landfills.

Supporters say the legislation would have health and environmental benefits, and establish shared responsibility among consumers, government agencies, health care entities, pharmacies and manufacturers. But opponents in the pharmaceutical industry say the costs of creating such a program would have to get passed on to people purchasing drugs.

State Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, who sponsored the bill, said it has been changed from the original proposal to minimize opposition.

“The responsibility for the manufacturers will be to create a statewide program and that would be approved and work within the federal laws. But there’s a lot left open for flexibility in different regions; there would only be reports every six months of the weight of what’s taken in,” she said. “It’s essential for getting pharmaceuticals out of our households and out of the waste stream.”

Perry, who has worked to reduce the amount of unused pharmaceuticals in households and the environment since 2003, said there are a number of similar regional programs in other states, but this would be the first statewide initiative.

In 2008, Maine developed a pilot mail-in program using grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and matching funds from the state.

“The mail-back program has everything sent to the (Maine Drug Enforcement Agency) because of a federal rule around controlled substances. That is the issue really with this (new proposal) and what we have done in the mail-back program. Law enforcement does need to be present when controlled substances may be involved,” Perry said.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies, opposes the proposal because of the costs it imposes on manufacturers to develop disposal programs and pay for their implementation.

A PhRMA spokeswoman confirmed on Monday that the group partnered with other groups to advertise against the bill in local newspapers. The advertisements urged readers to contact their legislators to oppose the measure.

“Creating a new program that could increase the cost of distributing medicines, that cannot be fully implemented under federal law, and that fails to include any provisions that help the environment would be wasteful of time and resources,” said Ken Johnson, a senior vice president with PhRMA, in a recent release. He also said that 90 percent of trace pharmaceuticals found in water is from the excretion of medicines from patients, not thrown away medication leaching from landfills.

“There’s been exponential growth in the amount of medications that are available now, both prescription and over the counter; in 2008, there were about 2.8 million prescriptions for controlled drugs issued in Maine,” said Perry, the House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. “Ten percent of an enormous number is an enormous number.”

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, also a co-sponsor on the bill, said Maine has passed similar laws concerning e-waste or computer disposal, and mercury, following “a very similar argument.”

“The producer does not want to pay for the disposal of their product and the eventual costs end up falling on the state or people’s health,” she said. “Maine has fought big pharma for a long, long time and been successful, and PhRMA is rarely happy with what we do. I don’t think legislators that support this will have their minds changed.”

State Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, supported the bill during the Health and Human Services Committee vote last week, but said he is still weighing the costs involved in the measure. Members voted 8-4 to pass the legislation, which is not expected to cost the state money.

“It seems it’s always a cost-benefit question. I am looking for answers that will help quantify the impacts, both environmental and economic,” he said in an e-mail on Monday. “I supported the bill in committee knowing we would have a divided report and there would be another chance for an even more complete debate on the House floor.”

The bill will be scheduled for votes in the House and Senate in the coming weeks.

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