An NDP MP is calling for a criminal investigation into the role opioid manufacturers have played in Canada’s overdose crisis.
Vancouver Kingsway MP Don Davies noted that pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma L.P., the maker of OxyContin, has pleaded guilty in the United States to misleading the public about the drug and has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle criminal and civil charges.
Canadian officials have not sought similar accountability or meaningful compensation from Purdue in Canada, which operates independently.
“It’s hard to believe that very aggressive marketing, minimizing the negative impacts of their products [and] flying doctors to exotic locations happened entirely in the United States and didn’t happen at all in Canada,” Mr. Davies said in Vancouver on Thursday.
“I’m calling for an investigation to look into that. I would suspect that that evidence will be found.”
In Canada, victims have attempted to seek justice on their own, filing a class-action lawsuit against Purdue’s Canadian operation that led to a proposed $20-million settlement, with $2-million going to provinces and territories and no admission of guilt.
Courts in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia approved the settlement, but Saskatchewan did not, with Justice Brian Barrington-Foote of Queen’s Bench saying in March that he was not satisfied the settlement was “fair, reasonable and in the best interests of the class as a whole.”
“The Saskatchewan judge said what I think needs to be said: $2-million proposed for every government of Canada to deal with the public health consequences of opioid addiction is a joke,” Mr. Davies said.
It’s estimated that more than 4,000 people died of opioid overdoses in Canada last year.
Purdue Pharma in Canada did not make a spokesperson available for an interview on Thursday. In a statement, the company said it promotes and markets its products in line with the Health Canada-approved product monograph and the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board code.
“Canadians are facing a complex public health issue in which all stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, have a role to play to provide practical and sustainable solutions,” the statement said.
Health Canada approved OxyContin in 1996 for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. A marketing campaign ensued, in both Canada and the U.S., with Purdue sales representatives promising long-lasting relief for a wide array of ailments, from back pain to fibromyalgia, while downplaying the risk of addiction.
The drug became the top-selling long-acting opioid in Canada for more than a decade. At the same time, reports of addiction and overdoses climbed – both among those who had been prescribed the drug and those who used diverted pills illicitly, often by crushing and snorting them.
In 2007, Purdue and three top executives pleaded guilty to charges that they misled the U.S. public about the drug. The company paid more than US$634.5-million to settle criminal and civil charges. It has not made a similar admission in Canada.
Health Canada said it is following the proceedings and outcomes of the U.S. case. And changes in 2014 to the Food and Drugs Act mean the maximum penalty for inappropriate marketing practices is now $5-million for each offence, up from $5,000, and there is no cap on offences that involve “knowingly or recklessly causing a serious risk of injury to human health.”
The federal government also acknowledged that payments to physicians from pharmaceutical companies can create conflicts of interest and said Health Canada “is exploring federal options to increase transparency” in this area.
Ten of Canada’s largest pharmaceutical companies have voluntarily disclosed that they spent at least $48.3-million collectively on payments to physicians and health-care organizations in 2016, but critics say the figures are incomplete and fall well short of genuine transparency.
British Columbia, the first province to sue Big Tobacco for health-care-related costs, is considering its options in light of Saskatchewan’s decision.
“B.C. government legal counsel will provide the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions with an update once they make a decision regarding next steps,” ministry spokeswoman Lori Cascaden said in an e-mail.