Mayor Lee and Big Pharma

Why can't the city mandate cheaper recycling rules for medication?
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EDITORIAL A piece of simple, logical legislation that would protect San Francisco consumers, public safety, and the environment appears headed for the desk of Mayor Ed Lee — and his signature would be the first clear sign that he's not going to let powerful lobbyists (or the legacy of Gavin Newsom) guide his decisions.

The bill, by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, would establish several secure places where people can drop off unused, unwanted, or expired pharmaceuticals for safe disposal. It seems so simple: every year, huge amounts of prescription meds are flushed down toilets or left around in medicine cabinets or drawers in the city. As much as one-third of all medicine purchased in the country is never used. The stuff that goes down the drain already has had a proven impact on aquatic life; the pills that never get thrown away are a hazard, particularly in households with small children.

But under current law, the only safe way to get rid of old meds is to return them to a pharmacy — and pay a fee. The cost of returning old drugs is enough of a deterrent that most consumers don't bother.

If you have used motor oil in California, you can drop off and recycle it free. Many hardware stores recycle old batteries, light bulbs, and paint. Computer makers have to pay for recycling their products. Why can't the city mandate the same rules for medication?

The easy answer: because it would cost about $200,000 a year to set up drop-off sites in drug stores and police stations — and the pharmaceutical industry doesn't want to pay.

It's a trivial amount of money, a fraction of what the industry spends on lobbying. In fact, with Big Pharma lobbyists from Washington and Sacramento crawling all over City Hall to block the Mirkarimi bill, it's possible that the drug companies have already spent more fighting the legislation than it would cost to implement it.

The bill would charge companies that sell pharmaceuticals in the city a very modest fee to pay for the drop-off program. Similar programs in other places (San Mateo County, Washington State) have been highly successful — but nobody yet has asked the companies that make billions of dollars selling these products to underwrite the cost. San Francisco would be the first.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has been fighting hard against the measure, claiming it would discourage biotech firms from investing in the city. That's a huge stretch, but the chamber's lobbying had an impact. When the measure came up at the end of 2010, four supervisors — Sean Elsbernd, Carmen Chu, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Bevan Dufty — voted with the Chamber and Big Pharma. So the bill would not have survived a Newsom veto.

But thanks to the oddities of scheduling, the legislation comes up for second reading Jan. 25, giving the new board a chance to weigh in. That will be a test for the new supervisors, but Mirkarimi is confident he's got the six votes to give the measure final approval.

Then it goes to Lee. And if he can stand up to the chamber and the misinformation campaign from Big Pharma and sign the measure, he'll not only help San Francisco take a national stand on an important consumer and environmental issue, he'll also demonstrate that he's not going to fall in line the way Newsom did every time downtown calls.