B.C. government sues drug companies over addictive opioids

British Columbia Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy is leading the charge in a class action lawsuit against companies that make, distribute and sell opioids. All told, more than 40 defendants are named.
British Columbia Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy is leading the charge in a class action lawsuit against companies that make, distribute and sell opioids. All told, more than 40 defendants are named. (Darly Dyck/Canadian Press)
Listen21:40

When British Columbia launched a class action lawsuit against companies that make, distribute and sell opioids last summer, it was taking the long view on an up-close-and-immediate problem.  

The provincial lawsuit seeks compensation for the costs of alleged corporate negligence contributing to the opioid crisis. It could take years to make its way through the courts.

The government filed a statement in the B.C. Supreme Court naming dozens of pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin.

  • There were more than 1,450 opioid-related deaths in B.C. in 2017 —  more than anywhere else in Canada.
  • That's 50 per cent more opioid-related deaths than 2016, when province declared a health emergency.
  • Canada is the world's second highest per capita user of pain killers.
  • In B.C., overdose deaths amoungst Indigenous people are three times that of the population at large.
  • Men make up 80 per cent of opioid related deaths.

It also targeted pharmacies that sell opioids, like Shoppers Drug Mart and its owner, Loblaws. All told, more than 40 defendants are named in the lawsuit.

"We made a decision that we needed to hold manufacturers and distributors of opioids responsible in the opioid crisis" Judy Darcy told The Sunday Edition guest host Peter Armstrong.

Darcy, the country's first, and only, Minister of Addictions and Mental Health, is leading the charge in the lawsuit.

"We've gone through a very long period where opioid manufacturers misled the public about the benefits and the risks of opioid addiction," she said.

For example, even after admitting that they had deliberately misled the public and engaged in fraudulent activities in their statement of settlement, Purdue Pharma, one of the biggest manufacturers of opioids, continued to downplay the risks.  

Street drugs vs. prescription

"The overwhelming majority of people who are dying today are dying because of poisonous street drugs," Darcy said.

And while she is reticent to draw a line between the manufacturers named in the suit and opioids found on the street, she explained that there was a period when prescription opioids were being aggressively marketed, and in that time many became addicted.

"How many turned to street drugs... that's not something we're able to put a number on."

For Darcy, this lawsuit is about building awareness but also about recouping costs. The price tag for using emergency services alone is quite high.

"This has consumed an enormous amount of funds from the public purse," Darcy said. "We think they [manufacturers and distributors] should be held accountable."

Purdue Pharma, one of the companies named in the government's statement of claim, has denied any wrongdoing.
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. None of the allegations contained in the civil claim, has been proven in court.


Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.