Skip to main content

The British Columbia government has tabled legislation aimed at fast-tracking a lawsuit against dozens of players in the opioid industry that it says knowingly spread misinformation and downplayed the addictive properties of the drugs, contributing to the overdose crisis.

Attorney-General David Eby said the Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, introduced on Monday, would help “facilitate the introduction of evidence” to expedite the class-action lawsuit announced in late August.

Mr. Eby noted that B.C.’s pursuit of tobacco companies took 20 years to wind through the courts, and the province has learned some lessons along the way.

“This is very involved litigation that can take many years, which is why we need legislation like this, to as best as possible make efficient use of the court system while maintaining fairness,” he said on Monday, adding that he hopes other provinces will join B.C. in the class-action suit.

The B.C. government on Aug. 29 filed a statement of claim in the Supreme Court of B.C. listing more than 40 defendants, including 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.; as well as distributors and wholesalers.

The lawsuit alleges manufacturers deceptively marketed the drugs as both being less addictive than actually known and for conditions they were not effective in treating. Distributors are alleged to have delivered these drugs “to pharmacies and hospitals in Canada that they knew or should have known exceeded any legitimate market.”

The government did not put a figure on what they expect to seek in damages, saying that will emerge in the proceedings.

"The health-care costs for opioid addiction are escalating every day,” Mr. Eby said. He said an important aspect of the legislation is to allow B.C. to document those costs. “It will be a key issue in evidence and we will be bringing in expert evidence in to show the court.”

The legislation proposed on Monday seeks to streamline the process of entering evidence. Rather than requiring every individual to present their case of how they are affected by opioid use, a representative group of cases would be brought forward. As well, it would place the burden on defendants to prove their activities did not increase use, and that their products did not cause harm.

Judy Darcy, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said on Monday it is critical to hold those companies to account and to try to recoup the costs of treatment and of the response to the overdose crisis.

“I’ve had the sad duty to sit many, many times with parents and family members who have lost loved ones to overdose, and I have given them a solemn commitment that we would do everything we could to save lives, and also to do everything in our power to prevent crises like this from happening again,” she told reporters in Victoria.

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. However, its Canadian operation has made no such admission of wrongdoing.

“We know they sold, manufactured, distributed these products without educating physicians or the public about the risks associated with overdose and addiction, well after litigation had been settled in the U.S., where companies to that lawsuit had admitted their role in the crisis,” Ms. Darcy said.

No one from Purdue was available for an interview late on Monday but the company issued a statement reiterating that it has always marketed its products in line with the Health Canada approved product monograph and in compliance with all relevant rules, regulations and codes.

“We are continuing to review the claim filed by the government of B.C. and will also review the newly introduced legislation,” the statement read.