Prescription Opioid Tax Proposed by Lawmakers in California, Advocates in NY

By Britni de la Cretaz 03/03/17

The proposed tax would help fund addiction treatment. 

Man opening wallet filled with money.

Some lawmakers and recovery advocates have what they think is an effective way to fund addiction treatment and services—a tax on prescription opioids (OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, etc.) which many believe have fueled the country’s current opioid epidemic.

California lawmakers are pushing a one-cent-per-milligram tax on the active ingredients in the drugs, while a group of New York advocates are proposing that New York lawmakers tax opioids to fund addiction services. 

In California, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty introduced a bill that would tax the drugs not at the point of sale, but on wholesalers who import the medication into the state. “California’s opioid epidemic has cost state taxpayers millions and the lives of too many of our sons and daughters,” McCarty said in a statement. “We must do more to help these individuals find hope and sobriety. This plan will provide counties with critical resources needed to curb the deadly cycle of opioid and heroin addiction in California.” The bill, AB 1512, would require a two-thirds approval vote in the state legislature.

In New York, a group of advocates called Friends of Recovery-New York (FOR-NY) are driving the push for an opioid tax that can help fund addiction services. The group is modeling their request after a federal bill. Some members of the New York Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction—including Senators George Amedore, Fred Akshar and Chris Jacobs, as well as Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, chair of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse—have expressed support for the group’s proposal.

Stephanie Campbell, acting executive director of FOR-NY, compared the proposed tax to what’s been done regarding the taxing of tobacco products. “When the tobacco companies started to be held accountable for their contribution to the cancer epidemic and the heart disease epidemic and they had to start contributing to the solution … then things started to change,” Campbell told the Times Union.

However, people who use prescription opioids to manage their chronic pain may take issue with the management of their illness being equated with the damaging effects of smoking. The needs of chronic pain sufferers have largely been ignored in discussions around opioid prescriptions, and many of the solutions intended to curb addiction have had the unintended consequence of making these medications more difficult to access for people who need them for medical reasons.

The Times Union says it’s not yet clear how much these proposed taxes will raise the price of the drugs, while the Los Angeles Times reports that in California, McCarty's office estimates the tax would raise tens of millions for drug treatment programs.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.