Expired Thinking on Expiration Dates?

Posted by Pharmacist on December 11, 2012

Every year pharmacies and consumers dispose of thousands (and thousands of dollars worth) of expired drugs. Since 1979 drug manufacturers have by required by law to provide expiration dates for their products. This was seen as a way to help guarantee both the safety and the effectiveness of the product for consumers.

As a result, most medications are disposed of within one to five years after they were produced, depending on the expiration date. However, this date has never reflected how long product ingredients would retain their potency or be effective.

Now a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine offers evidence that it may be time to rethink those expirations dates. After studying a supply of unopened prescription drugs with expiration dates ranging between 28 and 40 years ago researchers concluded that most of the drugs were as effective now as when they were originally manufactured.

There were 14 active ingredients in the eight drugs: aspirin, amphetamine, phenacetin, methaqualone, codeine, butalbital, caffeine, phenobarbital, meprobamate, pentobarbital, secobarbital, hydrocodone, chlorpheniramine, and acetaminophen. Amongst its findings, the study found that 79 percent (11 of 14) drug compounds were found in at least 90 percent of the amount shown on the label.

The study was led by Lee Cantrell, a professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco. He noted, “We’re spending billions and billions on medications and medication turnover. If a drug has expired, you’ve got to throw it away, it goes into a landfill, and you have to get a new prescription. This could potentially have a significant impact on cost.”

Revisiting the idea of expiration dates can also be helpful when medications are in short supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done this in the past, with anti-venom drugs, for example. And the FDA is working with the Department of Defense on the Shelf-Life Extension Program (SLEP) to help decrease costs for the military. The program reports that 88 percent of 122 drugs should extend their expiration date for at least one year; the average recommended extension date is 66 months.


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