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Big drug manufacturers have sued the King County Board of Health over a new disposal program that makes them pay the costs for getting rid of unwanted medications.

Four pharmaceutical manufacturing associations sued last week in U.S. District Court for Western Washington alleging that the county disposal program, adopted in June, unconstitutionally shifts the costs of creating and running a safe drug take-back program from local government onto national drugmakers.

Local officials say they’re confident the county program will survive a court challenge, and note that a similar program in Alameda County, Calif., on which the King County ordinance was modeled, was upheld by a federal court in August.

Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin, vice chair of the Board of Health, said both jurisdictions adopted a “product-stewardship model” for their programs.

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“If you produce the product, you have a responsibility for what happens to it afterward,” Conlin said. He said the ordinance also is similar to a state electronics-recycling program that requires manufacturers to pay for disposal.

In the case of drugs, he said the typical way to get rid of them is to put them in the trash or flush them down the toilet. “Neither is great for the environment,” he said, noting that drugs in the wastewater-treatment system can end up in Puget Sound and can harm marine life.

The Board of Health ordinance requires drug producers to provide secure containers at pharmacies and police stations for unwanted medications. The drugs will be taken to a hazardous-waste incinerator for disposal, with the costs borne by the manufacturers.

A spokesman for the drug companies said that only the federal government can enact statutes that impact interstate commerce.

“If there were a fee imposed on the sale of drugs to fund the program, we would have no objections, but that’s not what happened,” said Mit Spears, executive vice president and general counsel for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, one of the four groups suing King County.

“They want to impose those costs not on sales in King County, but on patients and consumers located elsewhere,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the ordinance unconstitutional and block its implementation.

Forcing drug companies to pay the costs of disposal would be like requiring national news publications to pay for the county’s paper-recycling program or requiring interstate food producers to collect and dispose of all spoiled food, the lawsuit says.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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