Company that made OxyContin says it has suspended active marketing of its opioids in Canada

Purdue Pharma Canada says in a letter to the federal health minister that it wants to help address the opioid crisis but the company denies any wrongdoing in the way it promoted OxyContin in Canada.

In a letter to Canada's health minister, Purdue Pharma denies any wrongdoing in Canada

Health Canada has announced its intent to restrict the marketing and advertising of opioids. Purdue Pharma (Canada) says it has suspended its promotional activities, but will continue to talk about its opioid products 'reactively' with health-care providers. (George Frey/Reuters)

Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, says it has stopped actively promoting its prescription opioids in Canada, according to a letter the company's Canadian branch addressed to the federal minister of health. 

The letter, dated June 27, was in response to a call to action from Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor for pharmaceutical companies to restrict the marketing of opioids as Canada grapples with the deaths of thousands of people due to drug overdoses and many more struggling with addiction.

Purdue Pharma (Canada) says that as of June 20, it had "suspended all promotional and advertising activities relating to our prescription opioids, pending the outcome of your consultation and the implementation of new regulations."

Purdue stopped manufacturing OxyContin in 2012 and replaced it with a different formulation, called OxyNeo.  

Health Canada has announced its intent to restrict the marketing and advertising of opioids and has asked for public comments, including from health-care providers and from opioid manufacturers, on "whether and how to proceed."

But the pharmaceutical company said it would still discuss its opioids with health-care professionals "reactively" by having staff in its medical affairs department deal with "requests for information."

Dr. Nav Persaud, a family doctor and researcher at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, said that kind of wording makes it unclear whether Purdue Pharma will actually make any significant changes to its marketing practices to health-care providers. He called the letter "mostly a distraction" from the company's role in the opioid crisis. 

Purdue Pharma's marketing of OxyContin to doctors and medical students as a safe and effective way to manage chronic pain has been widely blamed for it being overprescribed and ultimately leading to the opioid crisis.  

Dr. Nav Persaud, a family physician and researcher at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, says he believes Purdue Pharma's letter to the federal health minister is 'mostly a distraction' from the company's role in the opioid crisis. (Craig Chivers/CBC News)

In the U.S., the company acknowledged in 2007 that its promotions exaggerated the drug's safety and minimized the risks of addiction. It agreed to pay more than $600 million US in penalties. 

Purdue has made no such admission of responsibility in this country, nor has the Canadian government pursued criminal prosecution. 

In its letter to the health minister, the company said it had behaved legally in Canada.

"Purdue Pharma (Canada) has always marketed its products in line with the Health Canada approved product monograph and in compliance with all relevant rules, regulations and codes, including the Food and Drugs Act and the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board (PAAB) Code," the letter says.

Class-action lawsuit

The company also said its medications had an important role to play in helping Canadians to manage pain and emphasized its work in making "tamper-resistant" and "abuse-deterrent" formulations of the drugs, including OxyNeo — which, like OxyContin, is made of the opioid oxycodone. 

"It's concerning [that] even where they are claiming to be attempting to help with the problem, they continue to advance this narrative that it's really about abuse," Persaud said. "They don't mention anything about the fact that they spread misinformation and based on that misinformation, people who should not have been exposed to opioids were exposed."

Last February, Purdue announced it would stop marketing opioid drugs to physicians in the U.S. and that it had reduced its sales staff by more than half. The company is facing many lawsuits in the U.S., and changing its marketing practices has been a key demand. 

In Canada, the company settled a class-action lawsuit for $20 million, but a judge in Saskatchewan refused to approve the settlement in March, saying he was "not yet satisfied" that the agreement was in the best interest of hundreds of plaintiffs who had become addicted to OxyContin. Under the terms of the settlement, Purdue made no admission of liability. 

Purdue Pharma is trying to appeal that judge's decision so that the settlement can proceed. The company is scheduled to make a case for that appeal in Regina on Aug. 22.  


Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from The Associated Press