The federal government is putting stronger warning labels on extended-release painkillers like OxyContin in an effort to prevent the abuse of opioids.
"Too many people are abusing prescription drugs," Health Minister Rona Ambrose told the annual conference of the Canadian Medical Association on Monday.
"Too many people are suffering and dying as a result."
In prepared remarks, Ambrose reminded the conference that Canada is now the second-largest per capita consumer of prescription opioids in the world, behind the United States.
As well, she pointed out, a 2012 study suggests that close to a million young Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 reported using prescription drugs in the previous 12 months.
The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey also found that 410,000 Canadians said they'd abused prescription drugs like opioid pain relievers, including Demorol and OxyContin; stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall; and tranquilizers and sedatives that include Valium, Ativan and Xanax.
"Quite frankly, these numbers are frightening, unacceptable and the reason why our government is taking action," Ambrose said.
The Conservatives' new initiatives include stronger warnings on opioid labels that emphasize the risks and safety concerns associated with the drugs.
The new labels also remove reference to "moderate" pain to clarify opioids should only be used to manage severe pain.
Ambrose is also calling for the development of other practical solutions that will prevent opioid abuse while keeping the painkillers available for patients who truly need them.
A year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced safety labelling changes for all extended-release and long-acting opioids intended to treat pain.
David Juurlink, a medical toxicologist at the University of Toronto, said it's "hard to argue" with label changes, adding OxyContin and related drugs should have been restricted for treating only patients in severe pain as soon as they came onto the market.
"The change will limit what drug companies can say in advertisements to doctors, but it's not likely to change how doctors prescribe opioids," he said in an interview. "That horse has bolted."
Ottawa needs to go much further, Juurlink added.
"What we really need are federal initiatives to quantify the toll of opioid misuse, to properly educate doctors about the risk/benefit profile of opioids and perhaps even federal support for an investigation into how these drugs were marketed in Canada," he said.
"That's happening in the United States, and for good reason. Why it's not happening here, I don't know."