Comment: Canada’s opioid crisis touches too many: It is time to seek justice

DON DAVIES and MURRAY RANKIN

Times Colonist

NOVEMBER 15, 2018 12:04 AM

Across Canada, too many families are tragically losing parents, siblings and children to the opioid crisis. From downtown neighbourhoods to our most remote areas, no community has been untouched by these dangerous drugs.

Last year alone, nearly 4,000 Canadians died from overdoses — more than from motor-vehicle accidents and homicides combined. More than 10,000 Canadians have lost their lives to opioids in the past three years.

And the crisis shows little sign of abating.

Canada now ranks as the world’s second-highest per-capita consumer of pharmaceutical opioids, second only to the United States. In 2017, a staggering 21.3 million prescriptions for opioids were dispensed in Canada.

That’s enough to stock every medicine cabinet in our nation.

In addition to the devastating toll that opioids are having on Canadian families, our public-health system has also been severely stressed. Frontline responders, overdose-prevention services, emergency rooms and treatment centres have all borne an enormous cost.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the rate of hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning has increased 53 per cent in the past decade, with more than 40 per cent of the increase occurring over the past three years. Paramedics, firefighters and police responders have been particularly tested and, in many cases, traumatized.

While drug manufacturers have reaped billions in profits from prescription opioids, the public has been left to bear the massive costs imposed by their products. The University of Victoria recently found that opioid use cost the Canadian economy $3.5 billion in 2014 alone.

There are many causes of this complex crisis, but one significant aspect has been largely ignored: The role that opioid manufacturers might have played in marketing these products to Canadians.

The origins of the overdose epidemic can be traced back to the late 1990s, when the number of opioid prescriptions began to increase dramatically in Canada. There is growing suspicion that drug manufacturers promoted this proliferation through an effort to minimize or conceal the risks of their products.

That conclusion has been proven in American courts.

In the U.S., federal authorities have secured criminal pleas, and opioid manufacturers have had to pay more than $600 million in fines, damages and other costs. Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to felony misbranding of OxyContin with the intent to defraud and mislead, while its president, chief legal officer and chief medical officer all pleaded guilty to misdemeanour charges of misbranding. These related to unauthorized claims that their products were less addictive, prone to abuse and likely to cause withdrawal symptoms than rival pain medications.

This summer, the British Columbia government filed a civil lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors in an effort to recoup some of the extensive costs caused by opioids. The claim alleges that the defendant drug companies engaged in “aggressive marketing efforts” and made misrepresentations relating to opioids.

B.C. has left the door open to federal and provincial/territorial participation in the lawsuit. Yet the Trudeau Liberals have taken no steps to join that action, pursue a separate civil claim or even investigate potential violations of Canadian law.

If opioid manufacturers minimized or concealed important information about prescription opioids in the U.S., is it not possible that they did so in Canada as well? Just as the U.S. government and dozens of states have done, should our national government not also protect taxpayers by seeking compensation to recoup the enormous costs to our public system? We think so.

It’s time for the federal government to either support B.C.’s lawsuit or file its own civil action.

It’s time to launch an investigation under the Food and Drugs Act to determine if criminal sanctions are warranted.

We owe it to those lost to the opioid crisis to bring those responsible to account.

Don Davies is the federal NDP’s health critic and member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway.

Murray Rankin is the NDP’s justice critic and member of Parliament for Victoria.

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