TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Patients who use respiratory inhalers will be able to recycle the devices for the first time in the U.S., according to British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which is launching its "Complete the Cycle" program Wednesday in drugstores in 31 cities.
GlaxoSmithKline is the top seller of respiratory medicines in the U.S., with brands including the blockbuster Advair, but its new program will also recycle inhalers made by competitors. The program, starting in cities from Anchorage, Alaska, to Atlanta, will enable patients to drop off inhalers in boxes at participating pharmacies. When bags inside the boxes are full, they'll be shipped to a Glaxo recycling contractor.
"We expect to bring back at least 100,000 inhalers in the 31 markets" in the first year, Jorge Bartolome, Glaxo's senior vice president for its respiratory business, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.
The company will then decide deciding where to expand the program in the U.S. and internationally. It's already running in the United Kingdom and a pilot program has begun in Chile.
"This is good for patients. This is good for pharmacists. This is good for the environment," Bartolome said, noting the program is part of Glaxo's ongoing efforts to minimize its environmental impact, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its facilities and limiting waste and use of water.
Glaxo, the world's seventh-biggest drugmaker by revenue, ran pilot projects in some pharmacies in five of the 31 cities, and got back about 3,000 inhalers in a year. It's now signed up about 10 percent of the 20,000 pharmacies in those cities and hopes more will join the program.
Millions of Americans use one inhaler on average each month, inhaling or squirting the medicine inside into the back of the throat to relax and expand airways. Some inhalers are used once or twice every day, while others, called rescue inhalers, are used during an attack of asthma or a flareup of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
When attacks are triggered — by cigarette smoke, viral infections, cold air, stress, exercise or by allergens such as pollen or certain foods — airway muscles spasm and constrict, and can even be blocked by an increase in mucus production.
That leaves the person gasping for breath. Inhalers, often called rescue inhalers, provide a fast-acting medicine to reverse those effects.
Glaxo chose the 31 cities because more than 30 million inhalers, about one-third of annual U.S. sales, occur in those markets — and they have high rates for recycling household waste.
A specialized recycler working with Glaxo will separate the inhalers' plastic and metal component, for them to be turned into products such as plastic hangers and car parts. Gas remaining in inhalers that use a propellant will be recovered and reused.
Glaxo's Advair inhaler, sold under the brand name Seretide in some other countries, was the third-best-selling prescription drug product worldwide in 2011, with annual sales of about $8.7 billion, according to drug data firm IMS Health. Glaxo also sells inhalers under the Flovent, Serevent, Ventolin and Relenza brands.
London-based Glaxo also is a major seller of vaccines and consumer health products, including the Alli weight loss pill, Commit smoking cessation lozenges and Aquafresh toothpaste.
To find participating cities and pharmacies, go to www.GSKCompleteTheCycle.com. Pharmacies and consumers elsewhere may ship empty inhalers at their own expense to: Material Matters, Inc., 730 Brady Ave., Asheboro, NC, 27203.
Linda A. Johnson can be followed at https://twitter.com/LindaJ_onPharma