By Mike Wilcox
I read a lot in my line of work. One article last week nearly blew my mind. It’s premise was drug expiration dates are a myth; they are nearly as potent many years after that.
The piece, co-published by ProPublica and National Public Radio, claims we have squandered $765 billion a year — as much as a quarter of this country’s healthcare spending — by discarding so-called expired drugs. On top of this, t the Food and Drug Administration has long known many prescriptions remain safe and potent for years after the date on the bottle indicates.
In one instance researchers studied several bottles of drugs found in a back closet of a retail pharmacy. The prescriptions predated the 1969 moon landing. Researchers found nearly half the compounds were as potent as they were when they were manufactured.
That’s not a surprise to the federal government. For decades the fed has kept massive stashes of expired meds, antidotes and vaccines in secure locations throughout the country. Worth tens of billions of dollars, the drugs are stockpiled to provide a first line of defense in case of war or another catastrophe.
Researchers claim there is no economic benefit for drug companies to extend expiration dates. They make money by ringing up more sales because hospitals, pharmacies and consumers believe they need to toss their pills once the expiration date has passed.
In defense of that practice, industry officials, who claim patient safety is their top priority, choose expiration dates “based on the period of time when any given lot will maintain its identity, potency and purity, which translates into safety for the patient.”
Sounds like nonsense to me. Lee Cantrell, who runs the California Poison Control System, says unequivocally there is no case recorded in medical literature where someone was harmed by taking expired drugs. Not 1,000, not 100 … Cantrell says not one!
David Berkowitz, a pharmacist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside of Boston, makes it a habit to sort through bins of tossed expired drugs. In total, the hospital throws away $200,000 worth of expired drugs per year.
Popular and expensive Epi-pens — $300 a pen — were sent for testing. Every one had at least 80 percent of their labeled concentration of medicine. Sixty percent had 90 percent or more, enough to be considered as potent as when they were made.
Several researchers have approached the FDA about their findings. No less than the American Medical Association urged the federal agency to take action. The shelf life of many drugs, wrote the AMA, “seems to be considerably longer than their expiration dates, leading to unnecessary waste, higher pharmaceutical costs and possibly reduced access to necessary drugs for some patients.”
The FDA has not responded. This, like with the opioid crisis, seems to be a case where Big Pharma and the FDA have a relationship far too cozy. If these scientists’ findings are correct and we can save billions of dollars in healthcare costs, wouldn’t it make sense to extend the shelf life of prescriptions?
It would make sense to you and me, but Big Pharma has another viewpoint. The quicker they can turn over a concentration of medicine, the quicker they can earn another dollar.
We’ve been told for decades to toss expired drugs, that they are dangerous for our health. If what I share is true, that notion is pure poppycock. The FDA needs to get off its hands, extend expiration dates and. most of all, stop misleading us.