NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Potential Savings From Longer Shelf-Life Of Drugs

March 28, 2000

Fifteen years ago, the Pentagon and the Food and Drug Administration set out to determine if prescription drugs continue to be effective after the expiration date stamped on the bottle. At that time the military was sitting on $1 billion worth of expired drugs and was contemplating the need to destroy them and replace them with fresh stockpiles every two or three years.

  • The results, never before reported, show that about 90 percent of them were safe and effective far beyond their original expiration date.
  • The only exceptions were nitroglycerin, insulin and some liquid antibiotics.
  • Some states currently require pharmacists to cut the expiration date to just one year after dispensing drugs -- even if the manufacturer's recommendations are beyond that.
  • Poor countries -- under urging from the World Health Organization -- often reject drug company donations of much-needed medicines if they are within one year of the expiration date.

The FDA began requiring dating of drugs in 1979 and the process endures. Some doctors say that, as a result, patients who can't afford medicines report having thrown out vials which have passed their expiration dates.

Only one report known to the medical community linked an old drug to human toxicity. A 1963 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association said degraded tetracycline caused kidney damage. But even that study has been challenged by other scientists.

Source: Laurie P. Cohen, "Many Medicines Prove Potent for Years Past Their Expiration Dates," Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2000.


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