Canada must hold drug companies accountable for opioid crisis


Canada is the world’s second-biggest consumer of pharmaceutical opioids—second only to the United States.

To put that in perspective, retail pharmacies across Canada dispensed 19 million prescriptions for opioids in 2016, up slightly from 18.9 million in 2015. That’s more than one prescription for every two Canadians.

The opioid crisis has now claimed the lives of more than 10,000 Canadians. In 2017 alone, the death toll from opioid overdoses was expected to hit more than 4,000—that’s more than motor vehicle accidents and homicides combined.

Of course, there are many causes of this complex issue, but one significant aspect has gone largely unexamined: the role that opioid manufacturers have played in marketing these dangerous products to Canadians.

That’s why Canada’s New Democrats are calling on the federal government to launch an investigation into the role played by drug companies in fuelling the opioid crisis in Canada, and to seek meaningful compensation for the public costs of this crisis.

In the United States, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, has already pleaded guilty to misleading the American public about OxyContin’s risk of addiction and agreed to pay $600-million to resolve a U.S. Justice Department probe. This was one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history.

Specifically, the company pleaded guilty to felony misbranding of OxyContin with the intent to defraud and mislead, while its president, chief legal officer, and former chief medical officer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of misbranding and agreed to pay a total of $34.5-million in fines.

In addition, the three executives were sentenced to three years of probation and 400 hours of community service in drug treatment programs.

Purdue and its three executives admitted that they falsely claimed OxyContin was less addictive, less subject to abuse, and less likely to cause withdrawal symptoms than rival pain medications. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved those claims.

In 2007, Purdue also reached a $19.5-million settlement with 26 states and the District of Columbia. Purdue settled separately with Kentucky for $24-million and with West Virginiafor $10-million in 2004.

More than 100 lawsuits remain ongoing at the state, county, and municipal levels in the United States. Federal U.S. Justice Department prosecutors are currently conducting a criminal probe, and 41 states have banded together to investigate major opioid manufacturers and distributors.

In contrast, Canada’s federal government has neither launched a criminal investigation nor sought meaningful compensation for the public costs of this crisis. Provinces have been similarly inactive.

This is as mystifying as it is irresponsible. Though the company says its operations in different countries are independent, if corporate executives minimized or concealed the addictive qualities of these products in the United States, it stands to reason that it’s possible they did so in Canada as well.

But instead of seeking accountability or compensation, Canada’s federal and provincial governments have left victims to pursue their own recourse through a privately initiated class-action lawsuit. That lawsuit resulted in a settlement last year of $20-million, with only $2-million allocated to provincial health authorities and no admission of corporate liability.

That’s less than the state of Kentucky—for the entire country of Canada.

Thankfully, a judge in Saskatchewan recently rejected the settlement because no steps were taken to ensure that past and potential future public health care costs were identified. Justice Brian Barrington-Foote of the Regina Court of Queen’s Bench said the settlement was “rife with problems” and that he was “not yet satisfied” that the settlement was “fair, reasonable,” or in the plaintiff’s “best interests.”

The company, meanwhile, told the CBC in a statement: “Purdue Pharma (Canada) has always marketed its products in line with the Health Canada-approved product monograph and in compliance with all relevant rules, regulations and codes, including the Food and Drugs Act.”

From 2011 to 2016 alone, provincial drug plans across Canada spent $548.6-million on medications to treat addictions to prescription and illicit opioids. With hundreds of millions of dollars more spent by governments for emergency room visits, first responders, and treatment programs, Canada has easily spent more than $1-billion dealing with the opioid crisis.

What message does it send when thousands of Canadians die of overdoses and our authorities fail to seek justice?

It’s time the Canadian federal government, led by the Justice Department and Health Canada, started to take similar measures as governments at all levels in the United States.

We owe it to the memory of those lost to this crisis to hold those who profited from it to account.

Don Davies is the NDP’s health critic and Member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway, B.C.

Canada must hold drug companies accountable for opioid crisis

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