OxyContin patent expiry poses tough choice for Ottawa

The federal health minister has two weeks to decide whether to allow drug companies to make a cheaper generic version of OxyContin, the much-prescribed painkiller that was pulled from the market after reports of abuse and rising addictions across Canada.

Health Canada urged to delay decision on allowing cheaper generic version of painkiller

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is being urged by her provincial counterparts to deny generic drugmakers permission to produce oxycodone, a painkiller marketed as OyxContin until it was pulled due to widespread abuse. (Canadian Press)

The federal health minister has until Nov. 25 to decide whether to allow drug companies to make a generic version of the painkiller OxyContin.

The patent on the brand name version of that drug expires on that date and generic drug companies have already signalled an interest in making the opiate, known by the non-brand name oxycodone.

But Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the drug, pulled OxyContin in March over concerns that it was being abused by drug users who altered it to make it more potent. The company replaced the drug with a new formulation called OxyNeo.

The patent for OxyContin expires Nov. 25, raising the possibility of cheaper generic versions. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press)

The new drug, while not tamper proof, is more difficult for addicts to alter in search of a euphoric high.

Opinion among health care professionals, and others, is mixed on what Ottawa should do.

Some argue generic drugs would help those who need a supply of affordable pain medication.

Provincial health ministers have unanimously asked their federal counterpart, Leona Aglukkaq, to delay a decision on opening OxyContin up to the generics. Ontario and Prince Edward Island are opposed to a generic version and are asking Ottawa to say no.

OxyContin addiction is a widespread problem, from Atlantic Canada and rural Ontario to northern First Nations communities.

The Ontario Association of Police Chiefs is also opposed.

Wayne Kalinski, deputy chief of police in Orangeville, Ont., is clear about what he believes will happen if a generic version of OxyContin is allowed back on the market.

"If we make a generic version readily available to people, it will be abused again. And that abuse will result in injury to people and deaths," he said.

Blamed for pharmacy break-ins

Pharmacies were often the target of armed robberies by addicts desperate for the drug.

Phil Emberley had his pharmacy robbed years ago.

He says since OxyNeo replaced OxyContin this year, robberies are down in cities such as Edmonton and Ottawa.

And he worries what might happen if a generic version suddenly becomes available.

"Whenever something is cheaper it becomes more accessible. Inventory levels will likely increase then as well, because not only will pharmacies have OxyNeo but they will also have generic oxycodone extended release on hand so that, once again, increases their potential as being a target, " Emberley said.

But despite this, Emberley said he recognizes the issue isn't that simple.

"The flip side is if it's more cheaply available for patients who use it appropriately, that may not be a bad thing. So you're really tempered with two different extremes in terms of public policy," he added.

Dr. Paul Gully agrees the issue is complicated. He's the senior medical advisor for Health Canada.

"It's enormously complicated, dealing with the issue of supply on the one hand, but also recognizing the huge challenge on the other hand and why people become addicted."

Gully says Health Canada is currently weighing all concerns around this issue. A final decision is expected soon.

Meanwhile, Purdue is also urging Health Canada to carefully consider whether to allow generic oxycodone, which it says would lack the abuse-deterrent features in the newer OxyNeo, such as a coating that makes the pills harder to crush down and mix with water or other solvents.


  • An earlier version of this story said the provinces are unanimously asking Health Canada to deny applications for generic OxyContin. In fact, the provinces have asked that the decision be delayed. So far, Ontario and P.E.I. want Health Canada to reject the generic version.
    Nov 08, 2012 9:25 AM ET


Susan Lunn has been covering politics in Ottawa since 2002. She has a special interest in health and the environment.