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Attorney General David Eby speaks to reporters in Victoria, B.C., on April 26, 2018.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia has launched a lawsuit against dozens of players in the opioid industry, alleging 20 years of misinformation and deception by pharmaceutical firms and distributors that knew or should have known the drugs were addictive and seeping into the illicit market.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind by a government in Canada, not only targets the drug manufacturers, but also takes aim at retail giants that sold the drugs, in an effort to recover public-health costs associated with an opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of Canadians.

B.C. Attorney-General David Eby described the legal action as an important step to address “corporate corruption and negligence” and said he would be asking other provinces to join.

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The list of more than 40 defendants includes manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma, whose OxyContin pain pill has been implicated in Canada’s overdose epidemic; retailers such as Shoppers Drug Mart Inc. and the Jean Coutu Group (PJC). Inc.; and distributors and wholesalers.

The lawsuit accuses brand-name and generic manufacturers of deceptively marketing opioids as both being less addictive than actually known and for conditions they were not effective in treating.

Distributors are accused of delivering these drugs “to pharmacies and hospitals in Canada in quantities that they knew or should have known exceeded any legitimate market.”

“While much attention has been focused on the effects of street drugs contaminated by illicit fentanyl and carfentanil, there is another side of this crisis,” Mr. Eby said on Wednesday outside the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

“We allege that Purdue was not alone in their illegal actions to drive profits.”

The allegations have not been proven in court.

B.C. has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against dozens of pharmaceutical companies for costs associated with the opioid crisis. B.C. Attorney-General David Eby alleges the companies intentionally misled the public about the safety of the opioids they manufacture. The Canadian Press

Purdue has acknowledged in the United States that its marketing of OxyContin was misleading, with the company and three of its top executives paying a total of US$634.5-million in 2007 to settle criminal and civil charges. Purdue’s Canadian operation has not made a similar admission of wrongdoing.

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Mr. Eby cited the company’s admission of wrongdoing in the American case as he announced B.C.'s lawsuit.

Purdue Pharma said in a statement on Wednesday that it is “deeply concerned about the opioid crisis, in British Columbia, and right across Canada.” The company reiterated that it has always marketed its products in compliance with Canada’s rules, including the federal Food and Drugs Act (FDA).

Shoppers and Jean Coutu Group did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor’s office has been in contact with the B.C. government about the legal action and is reviewing the claim, spokesman Thierry Belair said.

Among the provinces and territories, Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Yukon said they were reviewing the matter.

Evan Wood, director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, said he “whole-heartedly” supports the lawsuit. The marketing practices of opioid manufacturers played a tremendous role in the growth of opioid prescribing, he said.

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“We went from a time when physicians, it wouldn’t even come into their minds to prescribe an opioid – those medications are for cancer patients, we know they’re very dangerous – to a place where free samples of OxyContin are being given to people with relatively minor arthritis,” Dr. Wood said.

“ I think this was driven in a huge part, if not fully, by the marketing practices of the industry ... It’s something that will go down in the history of medicine as an incredible tragedy in how the health-care system really had the wool pulled over its eyes.”

What’s needed going forward, Dr. Wood said, is a two-fold approach: People who have never used opioids must be protected from being unsafely prescribed; while those who are currently dependent on opioids need compassionate treatment and support on a case-by-case basis.

Leslie McBain, whose son, Jordan Miller, died of an opioid overdose in Victoria in 2014, welcomed the government’s announcement. Her son became dependent on oxycodone after he was prescribed it for a workplace injury when he was 23. Mr. Miller went to detox, but relapsed and fatally overdosed a few months later. He was 25.

“The lawsuit may never come to fruition in terms of the government winning and getting a lot of money to mitigate the costs of the crisis for British Columbians,” Ms. McBain said. However, she added, “The point really is to show Canadians that we do hold [opioid manufacturers] accountable for deaths.”

Opioid overdoses have surged across Canada, and British Columbia is among the hardest hit. At least 1,450 people died of illicit drug overdoses last year in the province and another 878 in the first seven months of 2018. Nationally, nearly 4,000 Canadians died as a result of opioids last year, according to data compiled by a federal task force.

Canada’s opioid epidemic traces its roots to the mid-1990s, with the introduction of OxyContin. Health Canada in 1996 approved the drug to relieve moderate to severe pain; until then, opioids had been used primarily for the seriously and terminally ill. Canada is the world’s second-highest per capita consumer of prescription opioids after the United States.

OxyContin was the top-selling long-acting opioid for more than a decade. At the same time, reports of addiction and overdose mounted among those who were prescribed the drug and those who used diverted pills illicitly. Purdue promoted OxyContin in North America as safer and less addictive than other opioids, encouraging doctors to prescribe the drug more widely for everything from back pain to fibromyalgia.

In June, Purdue stopped marketing its opioids in Canada, in response to the federal government calling on drug companies to suspend marketing activities associated with opioids. Health Canada is in the process of developing policies aimed at restricting the marketing and advertising of the drugs.

With reports from Ian Bailey in Vancouver and Kelly Cryderman in Calgary

illicit drug overdose deaths

and death rate in b.c.

1,600

35

1,400

30

Deaths

1,200

Death rate per

100,000 population (right)

25

1,000

20

800

15

600

10

400

5

200

0

0

‘92

‘95

‘00

‘05

‘10

‘15

‘18

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BC Coroners Service

illicit drug overdose deaths

and death rate in b.c.

1,600

35

1,400

30

Deaths

1,200

Death rate per

100,000 population (right)

25

1,000

20

800

15

600

10

400

5

200

0

0

‘92

‘95

‘00

‘05

‘10

‘15

‘18

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BC Coroners Service

illicit drug overdose deaths and death rate in b.c.

1,600

35

1,400

30

Deaths

1,200

Death rate per 100,000 population (right)

25

1,000

20

800

15

600

10

400

5

200

0

0

‘92

‘95

‘00

‘05

‘10

‘15

‘18

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BC Coroners Service

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