Expired drugs aren’t really expired

August 1, 2019

Mike Wilcox Editor/Publisher

In my line of work, one does a lot of reading. I came across an article last week that nearly blew my mind. The premise of the piece was that drug expiration dates are merely a myth- that they are nearly as potent many years after their expiration date.

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 health care spending, by discarding so-called expired drugs. On top of this staggering pronouncement is the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long known that many prescriptions remain safe and potent for years longer than the date on the bottle indicates.

In one instance researchers studied several bottles of drugs that were found in a back closet of a retail pharmacy. The prescriptions pre-dated the 1969 moon landing. Researchers found nearly half the compounds were as potent as they were when they were manufactured.

Believe it or not, that isn’t a surprise to the federal government. For decades they have been stockpiling massive stashes of expired medication, antidotes and vaccines in secure locations throughout the country. The drugs are worth tens of billions of dollars, and are stockpiled to provide a first line of defense in case of war or another catastrophic event.

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 highest 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.”

Hmmm, sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me. Lee Cantrell who runs the California Poison Control System says unequivocally there has never been a case recorded in medical literature where someone was harmed by taking expired drugs. Not one thousand, not hundred, Cantrell says absolutely no 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 in expired drugs per year. The popular and expensive Epi-pen- $300 a pen, were sent for testing. Every one of the expired pens 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 (AMA) urged the FDA 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 failed to respond. This seems to be another case, just like with the opioid crisis, that Big Pharma and the FDA have a relationship that is far too cozy. If indeed the findings of the various scientists are correct and if indeed we can save billions of dollars in health care costs wouldn’t it make sense to extend the shelf life of prescriptions?

Yes it would make sense to you and I, but Big Pharma has another viewpoint-it’s called making money, and the quicker they can turn over a concentration of medicine the quicker they can earn another dollar.

We have been told for decades to toss expired drugs- that they are dangerous for our health. If what I share is true, and I certainly am a believer, that notion is pure poppycock. The FDA needs to get off their hands and extend expiration dates and most of all, stop misleading you and I.

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