After a week of intense eleventh-hour lobbying by drug companies, Alameda County supervisors decided to delay an ordinance that would have made it the first local government to require pharmaceutical companies to take back their products.
A 4-0 vote in favor of the ordinance was expected. Instead supervisors decided to postpone a vote until no later than June.
"We'll come to the table and we'll talk," said District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley, who has been the main force behind the ordinance. "But at the end of the day we are going to have a program in place," he told an audience of supporters and opponents gathered at the Tuesday supervisors meeting.
District 2 Supervisor Nadia Lockyer was absent. She has been undergoing rehabilitation for addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.
There already are 128 drug drop-off sites in the Bay Area, used by residents in 2009 to dispose of 60,000 pounds of unwanted pharmaceuticals. Alameda County's ordinance, which estimates costs at $200,000, would have required manufacturers to come up with detailed plans for financing and collecting prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Companies could not pass on the cost to consumers.
The proposal prompted objections by business representatives and envoys of pharmaceutical trade companies. They argued the ordinance was premature, ineffective and unnecessary because consumers can dispose of leftover drugs in the trash or flush them down the toilet.
They also argued most drugs get into waterways after being excreted by consumers as opposed to be being flushed down toilets or leaching into the water system from landfills, as the county and environmentalists have argued.
The responsibility would be a burden, lobbyists said, adding that they learned about the ordinance only two weeks ago from an article in the Oakland Tribune, after the first reading of the bill on Feb. 28.
The companies haven't had enough time to respond, argued Ritchard Engelhardt of the pharmacy trade group BayBio, based in South San Francisco.
The Washington, D.C.-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America cautioned supervisors in a March 5 letter that the ordinance "will have numerous unintended consequences."
Those consequences include increasing health care costs, risking access to medicine and unintentionally increasing the diversion of medicines, opponents argued.
Paul Junge from the Oakland Municipal Chamber of Commerce also warned that thousands of drug companies might decide not to do business in Alameda County because of the ordinance.
"That would be bad for all our residents," Junge said.
Another consequence involved legal action against the county, supervisors said.
Miley, however, called the claim that drug companies and lobbyists didn't know about the ordinance a "red herring."
"This is how they make their living, knowing what's going on," he said during the meeting Tuesday.
Miley also brushed off threats that the drugmakers would leave the county.
If Alameda County adopts this ordinance, others will do the same, he said. "There's too much money to be made. ... You're blowing smoke."
And he decried the lobbying that even pulled in Hayward City Councilman Bill Quirk, who is running for a seat in the Assembly. He sent Miley an email arguing the ordinance was a solution to a problem that did not exist.
BayBio and PhRMA have spent heavily on campaign contributions to California Senate and Assembly members, according to the Secretary of State records.
The cost should not be an issue, District 3 Supervisor Wilma Chan said. In 2010, the industry made $300 billion and spent $2 billion on TV advertising, she said.
If the industry were to support the county's ordinance, it could be "well worth the good will and might be a positive business decision," she added.
The Alameda County ordinance was a year in the making, but Michael Bauer, of the Union Sanitary District, said the problem being addressed is not new. The industry, Auer said, could have participated in a solution before. "We would have loved their assistance."
Public support appeared to be on the side of the take-back program.
More than a dozen speakers from around the county spoke in favor of making the drug companies responsible for their products in a way that protects the environment.
"It's time. It is way over time," said Angela Griffiths, a Castro Valley resident who has helped with local drug take-back programs.
The industry has not set the stage for how to move forward, she said.
"So we have to push it," Griffiths said. "If not now, when? If not here, then where?"