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A pharmacist holds prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. at a local pharmacy, in Provo, Utah, on April 25, 2017.George Frey/Reuters

One of the world’s largest consulting firms will not say whether the man who is now Canadian ambassador to China was aware that the company had a role in advising how to boost sales of OxyContin and other highly addictive drugs when he was head of the firm.

Dominic Barton was global managing partner of McKinsey & Co. from 2009-2018, a period during which the New York-based consulting firm advised Purdue Pharma on ways to bolster sales of OxyContin.

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped Mr. Barton to head a blue-chip advisory council on economic growth that recommended a year later the creation of an infrastructure bank. Mr. Barton served as global managing partner emeritus until September, 2019, when the Prime Minister appointed him Canada’s envoy to Beijing.

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Contacted by The Globe and Mail, McKinsey declined to say whether, as CEO, Mr. Barton was aware of the firm’s involvement with Purdue Pharma. The company, which issued a statement earlier this month regretting its advisory work, referred questions to Mr. Barton about his knowledge of McKinsey proposing that pharmacies be paid rebates for opioid overdoses.

The Globe has asked both Mr. Barton and the Prime Minister’s Office for comment but they have not responded.

The New York Times reported last month that McKinsey had discussed ways for Purdue to “turbocharge” sales of its drug OxyContin, including paying Purdue’s distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose attributable to pills they sold.

This has prompted calls by Democratic and Republican lawmakers for McKinsey to be investigated.

“Whether it’s shadowy business dealings in China or helping Purdue stoke the opioid crisis, McKinsey has a lot to answer for,” Republican Senator John Hawley said in a statement to The Globe. “Now McKinsey is terrified of going on the record to defend their conduct or even answer a few basic questions. That’s not the kind of partner the federal government should be doing business with, and the American people deserve answers now.”

DJ Carella, director of global media relations at McKinsey, would only say that during Mr. Barton’s tenure as global managing partner, “he was never on the client team that served” Purdue.

Asked if the then-McKinsey CEO was ignorant or unaware of what was going on within the company, Mr. Carella said: “That is not a question that I can answer.”

Pressed on who could answer that question, he said: “Mr. Barton would be in a position to answer that question.”

During a virtual appearance before the House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations last Tuesday, Mr. Barton declined to comment on the role that McKinsey played advising drug giant Purdue Pharma, which last month agreed to plead guilty in the U.S. to criminal charges involving OxyContin.

He told Conservative MP Garnett Genuis to read a statement released on McKinsey’s website on Dec. 5 where the company said, “We recognize that we did not adequately acknowledge the epidemic unfolding in our communities or the terrible impact of opioid misuse and addiction on millions of families across the country.”

In the statement, the firm further said “any suggestion our work sought to increase overdoses or misuse and worsen a public health crisis is wrong.” But, it continued: “that said, we recognize that we have a responsibility to take into account the broader context and implications of the work that we do. Our work for Purdue fell short of that standard.”

The company also promised to co-operate with authorities and conduct a “full review” including into a July, 2018, e-mail exchange that indicated executives discussed whether to destroy evidence linking McKinsey to the growing legal risk faced by Purdue Pharma over its opioid business.

Purdue recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including bribing doctors to prescribe OxyContin, as part of a US$8.3-billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. The company generated US$31-billion in worldwide revenue from its blockbuster pain pill, ranking the Sackler family, which controlled Purdue, among America’s richest families.

Court documents show much of McKinsey’s work involved direct consultation with the Sackler family. The family has proposed giving up ownership of the firm, which filed for bankruptcy in September, 2019, and paying $3-billion out of their personal fortunes to settle claims against them.

Mr. Hawley, the GOP senator, has called McKinsey’s conduct “abhorrent” and urged Congress to cut off billions of dollars of U.S. consulting contracts. The House of Representatives committee on oversight and reform has set a hearing for Dec. 15 “on the role of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family in fuelling the opioid epidemic.”

Canada’s provincial governments have filed opioid-related claims totaling US$67.4-billion in a U.S. court, in an attempt to recover public-health care costs associated with fighting an epidemic that has killed thousands of people and devastated communities across the country.

The federal government did not start tracking opioid deaths until 2016. Between January, 2016, and March 20, 2020, alone, 16,364 Canadians died of opioid-related overdoses.

The provinces’ claims are among more than 600,000 processed by a U.S. bankruptcy court against Purdue Pharma as of Dec. 7. Despite the sheer size of the provincial claims – $85.5-billion over two decades for everything from emergency medical care to overdose prevention sites and addiction treatment programs – the provinces did not pursue legal action until three years ago.

The B.C. government launched a lawsuit in 2018 on behalf of all the provinces against more than 40 pharmaceutical companies and distributors, including Purdue, alleging they knew or should have known opioids were addictive and seeping into the illicit market.

The belated legal action, the first of its kind by a government in Canada, reflects years of indifference by government leaders in Ottawa and the provinces to an escalating public-health crisis, one that has grown more deadly with an influx of illicit fentanyl.

The crisis traces its roots to the introduction of OxyContin 24 years ago and has since spread to other, more hazardous drugs.

Neither Ottawa nor the provinces were taking adequate steps to stop doctors from indiscriminately prescribing highly addictive opioids to treat chronic pain – in 2015 alone, doctors wrote enough prescriptions for one in every two Canadians. And addiction-treatment programs were few and far between – a legacy of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime policies.

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