OAKLAND -- Alameda County won a victory this week in its first-in-the-nation bid to make drug companies pay for the cost of throwing away unused pills.
In a ruling that could embolden others to follow the East Bay government's lead, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg denied a lawsuit by the pharmaceutical industry that sought to halt Alameda County's prescription drug take-back ordinance.
That means beginning in November, companies that sell prescription drugs anywhere in California's seventh-most populous county will have to run a "stewardship program" to collect and discard unwanted medicine -- an initiative meant to curb drug abuse and the flushing of pills into the water supply.
The county's top lawyer said Friday she was "very pleased with the decision" and unsurprised.
"The county did not take this step lightly," said Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler. "There are a lot of issues with unwanted prescription drugs out there. ... As the court found, it's a public health and safety concern."
Passed unanimously by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors last summer, the new law declares that expired, improperly discarded and illegally resold prescription drugs can too easily poison children, teenagers and the elderly, and that careless flushing of the drugs down toilets can also contaminate drinking water and the San Francisco Bay watershed.
Drug companies assert it will cost them about $1.2 million each year to transport and throw away the unwanted drugs. County officials countered that it will total less than $330,000 annually, shared by about 100 companies that sell drugs within the county's boundaries. The law also prohibits drug companies from passing the cleanup costs on to local consumers through fees.
Industry associations representing brand-name and generic drug manufacturers sued in December in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, arguing that the county law was unconstitutional because it would interfere with interstate commerce.
Seeborg dismissed their claims in an order filed Wednesday.
Alameda County "has adequately shown that the ordinance serves a legitimate public health and safety interest, and that the relatively modest compliance costs producers will incur should they choose to sell their products in the county do not unduly burden interstate commerce," Seeborg wrote.
While declining to say if they will appeal, drug industry representatives said Friday they will review the opinion and "remain confident in our legal position," according to a joint written statement from the three plaintiffs: the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the Generic Pharmaceutical Association.
"Though disappointed in this lower court's opinion, we maintain our opposition to take-back programs like Alameda County's, which place the entire responsibility on pharmaceutical manufacturers for the execution, finance, management and administration of otherwise municipal operations, and shift the costs and burden of such local programs to out-of-county consumers and companies," their statement said.
The East Bay initiative is modeled, in part, on a similar program in British Columbia and other Canadian provinces. Drug companies also pay for a voluntary pilot program in San Francisco, but Alameda County is the first in the nation to make the cleanup program mandatory.
Washington's King County, which encompasses Seattle, is among the jurisdictions now exploring similar measures.
"A lot of counties are watching and may follow suit in light of what's happening here," Ziegler said.
She said county supervisors temporarily stepped back from passing the law last year after drug companies raised objections but proceeded after listening to the complaints.
"The only resolution that would be satisfactory to them was that we didn't pass an ordinance at all," Ziegler said. "Their response was consistently, 'Don't do anything. Don't pass an ordinance or we'll sue you.' That's how we ended up here."
Contact Matt O'Brien at 510-208-6429. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattoyeah.