After falling under industry pressure in the Board of Pharmacy, requirements for safer prescription medication labels have found new life in the California Legislature. With the support of Consumers Union and other allies, Senator Ellen Corbett introduced a bill that will create a minimum of 12-point font for the most crucial information on medication labels and will require translation of medication label information into commonly used non-English languages. SB 1390 (Corbett) overcame its first hurdle on June 22 when it passed the Assembly Health Committee.

The California Board of Pharmacy was originally tasked with the duty of creating a safer, standardized label for medications throughout the state. However, after pharmacy chains got involved, the Board passed a regulation that pharmacies would only have to provide labels in 12-point font and translation services if requested. Putting the burden on patients, many of whom are ill, to choose safer medication labels was against the intent of the original bill requiring a standardized label, leading Corbett to introduce the requirements in a new bill.

Lobbyists from the California Retailers Association and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores are fighting the bill, claiming that the font size and translation requirements are too expensive and difficult. The Institute of Medicine estimates almost half of all patients misunderstand medication label instructions, which puts patients at risk for bad drug reactions that can cause injury or death. Seniors are especially vulnerable to the dangers of medication labels because they often have worsening vision and are more likely to use prescription medications. Furthermore, the Board of Pharmacy prepared sample labels that can be used as a model for improving the readability of drug label information.

The bill will face another, bigger test on June 29 when it is set for a hearing in the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection committee.

July 1 update:
Despite the strong support of several activist groups and Senator Corbett and her staff, SB 1309 went down by a 3-2 vote in the Business and Professions and Consumer Protection subcommittee of the California Assembly on Tuesday. Big Chain Pharmacy representatives showed up in force to pressure the committee against requiring all medication labels to be safe.

The aye votes were: Hill and Eng.
The other votes were:
Hayashi – no
Hernandez – no
Ma – no
Nava – not voting
Ruskin- not voting

Since the bill failed this round, we’ll continue the fight for readable, understandable labels on medication containers by pushing for notification requirements on the regulation front. The regulation would provide that patients be notified that translation services and a 12-point font are required by law if requested. It’s a short term fix and we hope that one day, safer medication labels be the standard for pharmacies, not an option.
Written by Syed Sayeed, Consumers Union West Coast Office.