B.C. sues opioid makers for 'negligence and corruption' about addiction risks

British Columbia has filed a lawsuit against multiple pharmaceutical companies in an effort to reclaim health-care costs incurred during the ongoing opioid crisis.

Case is 1st example of a province going after opioid makers for costs, expert says

B.C. Attorney General David Eby (right) and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy announced a lawsuit against 40 drug companies Wednesday, Aug. 29. They accuse the wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers of being in part responsible for the ongoing opioid crisis faced by the province. (Frederic Gagnon/CBC)

B.C. Attorney General David Eby spoke of the "terrible toll" opioid addiction has taken on many British Columbians and their families as he announced a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to reclaim costs associated with the ongoing opioid crisis.

The suit, he said, was filed Wednesday morning against over 40 companies involved in the manufacture, distribution and wholesale of opioids.

The government alleges the companies downplayed the risks of their drugs when advertising them to physicians, especially when it comes to their addictive potential, thus contributing to the opioid crisis.

"No amount of money from this action can possibly make up for the loss of someone's child, someone's partner, or someone's friend," Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said at the announcement on the steps of the Vancouver Law Courts.

"Today we are clearly saying that pharmaceutical companies must take responsibility for their role and put the lives of people before profit."

He said the suit would seek to recover only costs to the public health-care system such as addiction treatment, emergency response and hospital expenses caused by what he termed the companies' "negligence and corruption."

It was not clear how much the suit would seek to recover. 

Eby said new legislation will be tabled in the fall to gather "population-based evidence" to prove the claim.

Company responds

Purdue Pharma, one of the companies named in the government's statement of claim, denied any wrongdoing.

"The opioids crisis is a complex and multifaceted public health issue that involves both prescription opioids and, increasingly, illegally produced and consumed opioids, as indicated in Health Canada's latest quarterly monitoring report," a company statement said.

"All stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, have a role to play in providing practical and sustainable solutions."

Purdue said it has always obeyed Canadian and international rules about drug marketing and follows the code of ethics prescribed by Innovative Medicines Canada, an industry group for pharmaceutical companies.

Correct focus?

The opposition B.C. Liberals accused the government of missing the mark with its suit.

"This is a crisis that needs urgent response, which we are not seeing from the NDP government," addictions critic Jane Thornthwaite said in a statement. 

"A court case that will likely drag out over decades will not save lives and could divert scarce resources away from front-line response and solutions that will help people get well."

"We do have to anticipate this will take some time to resolve," Eby said of the suit, explaining he expects companies will "aggressively" defend themselves but the province will prevail.

Darcy agreed that the majority of overdoses in B.C. are being caused by illicitly manufactured opioids poisoned with fentanyl but its unclear how many of the people using those drugs initially became addicted through prescription drugs.

She said research on that front is ongoing, but Simon Fraser University drug policy researcher Donald MacPherson believes it's an "indirect relationship."

A class-action lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma is still being hashed out in the courts. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

MacPherson said the real focus has to be on the fentanyl-contaminated drug supply causing the vast majority of overdose deaths.

"We see [the lawsuit] as a sideshow to the main event," MacPherson said. 

"It's not going to have any impact on the overdose crisis … it may not have any impact for five or 10 years, or not at all."

MacPherson said the government should be working on providing a clean supply of opioids for people with addictions if it wants to stop the overdose crisis.

'An important moment'

But Matthew Herder, director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who has spoken with provincial lawyers about the case, said he believes the B.C. lawsuit is an important step.

"It's an important moment when at least one provincial government is trying to take action with some of the actors who have been, on a systemic level, more responsible for the present crisis," Herder said.

"Myself and others have long been calling for various levels of government to take action and try and hold manufacturers that are at the centre of the opioid epidemic … accountable."

There has been "little to no" legal activity against pharmaceutical companies involved in marketing opioids, Herder said, aside from a national class-action lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

He likened the lawsuit to past legal actions against tobacco companies.

Central question

Herder said a central question of the case will be how much the companies and their associates were aware of the potential of misuse of the highly addictive painkillers and how much they downplayed that risk.

He said there has been litigation in the U.S. involving Purdue and other companies that found awareness on the part of manufacturers and that marketing did not highlight those risks.

"I'm sure we're going to see a similar dispute about that set of facts," he told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Purdue has stopped marketing opioids to doctors — direct-to-consumer drug marketing is generally prohibited in Canada — but Herder thinks that might be too little too late.

"The real issue is going to be how did we get to this point," he said.

"How much is the health-care system in British Columbia and elsewhere dealing with past practices where perhaps the company or companies were playing fast and loose with their marketing materials?"

Another complex issue, Herder said, will be if and how overprescription of opioids by physicians is linked to the use of illicit opioids, which have killed thousands of people in B.C. and Canada.

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, there were 742 unintentional overdose deaths between January and June of this year alone, largely driven by the opioid fentanyl.

With files from Yvette Brend and CBC Radio One's The Early Edition

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story reported that Matthew Herder was consulted by B.C.'s lawyers on the case. In fact, he said he had only spoken with them.
    Aug 29, 2018 1:10 PM PT

About the Author

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.