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Prescription painkiller OxyContin, which will be delisted from Ontario's drug benefit program.Michelle Siu For The Globe and Mail

Ontario is "strongly urging" the federal government not to let generic brands of the popular painkiller OxyContin into Canada once Purdue Pharmaceuticals' patent runs out this fall.

The expiration of Purdue's OxyContin patent on Nov. 25 opens the door for other companies to manufacture cheaper generic versions of the controlled-release oxycodone. Purdue will continue to make a new, tamper-resistant patented drug – OxyNEO – introduced to replace OxyContin earlier this year.

In a letter to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq sent Friday, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews asked Health Canada to withhold approval from applications to get generic versions on the market. Approving them, Ms. Matthews writes, "would further exacerbate the incidences of addiction and death in Canada and contribute to a growing public health crisis."

OxyContin is among the most widely abused prescription drugs in Canada. Years into an epidemic, provinces are tightening rules on painkillers covered by their health plans and trying to get a better handle on who's getting what pills and where.

"I understand generic manufacturers may have submitted their products for approval to market in Canada," Ms. Matthews' letter reads. "I urge you to direct your officials to consider the broader public health perspective.… The costs to society of the reintroduction of the more-easily abused version far outweigh the financial benefits."

Health Canada confirmed that generic oxycodone could be on the market Nov. 25 if applications are approved, but wouldn't say whether anyone has applied. "Once a submission is received, its existence or non-existence within the department remains confidential, proprietary information until it is approved," spokeswoman Olivia Caron said in a e-mail.

At least one of Ms. Matthews' provincial counterparts agrees with her.

"Easy access to these highly addictive drugs is a serious problem," Prince Edward Island Health Minister Doug Currie said Friday. "We need to closely evaluate these types of drugs – just because it's generic doesn't mean we need it."

Canadians pop more pills than nearly any country in the world, behind only the United States and Belgium in prescription opioid use. In 2006 in Ontario, as many people were killed by opioids as were drivers in car accidents.

But it's a tricky public-health crisis to tackle: Not only are these drugs legal, they'd badly needed by many patients in pain.

Purdue discontinued OxyContin this March in favour of OxyNEO, which is supposed to be tamper-proof and therefore harder to abuse. At the same time, many provinces restricted access to the OxyNEO they pay for, requiring physicians to make a special case for patients to receive the drug.

David Juurlink, a drug-safety specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, hopes Health Canada doesn't approve any generic versions of the controlled-release oxycodone.

"It will be in pharmacies across Canada – 20, 40, 80 milligrams of easily crushed oxycodone that people can go back to snorting or injecting.… The streets will readily fill up again with tablets."

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