As It Happens

'Human beings before profits': B.C. sues pharmaceutical companies for role in opioid crisis

B.C.'s Mental Health Addictions Minister Judy Darcy announced the landmark lawsuit on Wednesday, alleging opioid companies aggressively marketed their products without alerting doctors of potential health risks.

Suit seeks restitution for economic strain on province's health care system

B.C. Attorney General David Eby, right, and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy announced a lawsuit against 40 drug companies Wednesday. Eby said it was not clear how much the suit would seek to recover as a result of what he termed their 'negligence and corruption.' (Frederic Gagnon/CBC)

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​B.C. has filed a class-action lawsuit against more than 40 pharmaceutical companies for their alleged role in the ongoing opioid crisis, in a landmark legal action.

The government's filing alleges that the companies aggressively marketed their products without alerting the public or doctors of potential health risks, contributing to an epidemic of addiction and straining the public health system.

Until now, opioid victims have sought restitution on their own, filing a national class-action lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

The suit reached a $20 million settlement, but in May a Saskatchewan judge decided not to approve the agreement for fear the compensation would be insufficient.

When announcing B.C.'s lawsuit on Wednesday, the province's Attorney General David Eby likened the new suit to past legal action taken by the government against tobacco companies. 

He made the announcement with B.C.'s Mental Health Addictions Minister Judy Darcy. She spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. Here is part of their conversation.

Minister Darcy, how are you alleging these pharmaceutical companies have contributed to opioid addiction in your province?

Well in a number of different ways. And interestingly, a very similar case has been proven in the United States against Purdue in May of 2007. As part of the settlement, Purdue signed an agreed statement of facts and it said: "Purdue's supervisors and employees with the intent to defraud or mislead marketed and promoted Oxycontin as less addictive less subject to abuse." So we're alleging that over 40 manufacturers and distributors aggressively marketed these products and they continued to do so after the risks were known.

They marketed them to health-care professionals, they marketed them to patients and to the public.

Nearly 4,000 Canadians died as a result of opioids in 2017, a 34 per cent increase from 2016 according to data from a new federal task force. (The Associated Press/Patrick Sison)

The U.S. case is different ... Is it maybe not up to government to make sure that those rules on marketing were properly enforced in this country?

Well what I can speak to is what we're doing today. We've been in office for a year now. From day one we have been really aggressively responding to the overdose crisis, focused of course primarily on saving lives and connecting people to treatment recovery as soon as possible. We invested $322 million in that.

Don't doctors have to take some of the responsibility for the over-prescribing of these opioids?

I think it's fair that there has not been adequate education of physicians and other health professionals or members of the public about the dangers of these drugs. I refer to something that was published back in 2001, an [OxyContin] advertisement, that showed a photograph of a very fit looking jogger with a tagline, "One to start and stay with." Another full page ad that says, "When you know a set of medicine will not be enough, take the next step in pain relief." These pharmaceutical manufacturers knew the dangers they did not inform physicians, and in fact they disputed claims that were being made by health professionals that were sounding the alarm.

Judy Darcy says B.C.'s lawsuit is not seeking compensation for loss of life, only restitution for the financial strain the opioid crisis has had on her province's health-care system. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

In British Columbia the medical profession is taking this very seriously. The College of Physicians and Surgeons here has issued guidelines when the dangers became known.

We're far more closely monitoring provincially prescribing patterns. We want to be very careful as we do this that people who legitimately need opioids or who become addicted to prescription opioids are weaned off these medications appropriately so that they don't end up turning to street drugs which are laced with fentanyl and other variations of synthetic opioids, because that is part of the phenomenon that we've seen people turning to street drugs because they've become addicted.

So it's a big and complex picture. But today's action is about saying pharmaceutical companies have to start putting people and lives and human beings before profits.

How much of a financial strain has this put on your health-care system?

Well, that's part of what will be calculated in determining what costs and what damages we're seeking in this process. I can tell you that the number of people who are admitted to emergency rooms as a result of opioid poisoning has gone up dramatically. We know the resources that we are putting in now in order to fight the overdose crisis is enormous. There were significantly increased cost of treatment and recovery programs to emergency responders. So the costs are enormous.

Are you seeking support from other provinces perhaps seeing if they want to join your suit?

We are having conversations. The attorney general is having conversations with other provinces. It is certainly possible and we hope that other provinces will join.

This segment was written by Sarah Claydon and produced by As It Happens' Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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