A woman whose son fatally overdosed after becoming addicted to the painkiller OxyContin is backing a New Democrat member of Parliament’s calls for the federal government to launch a criminal investigation of opioid manufacturers.
Helen Jennens said families that have lost loved ones to an ongoing epidemic want accountability for the actions of any company that profits from allegedly hiding or minimizing the addictive impact of opioids.
New Democrat MP Don Davies said the federal government should also pursue compensation for the cost of treating addiction in a country that is the second-leading user of opioids, after the United States.
Jennens was among what she estimated to be about 2,000 litigants in a class-action lawsuit that resulted in a $20-million settlement against Purdue Pharma (Canada). A Saskatchewan judge recently rejected the settlement, saying it was inadequate.
The case launched in 2007 and involved people across the country.
“It was ridiculous,” Jennens said Thursday about the settlement. “I was glad the judge turned it down.”
A federal investigation could lead to a government lawsuit against Purdue, sending a message to drug companies and the public, said Jennens, whose son Tyler Leinweber died in January 2016 from fentanyl-laced heroin after he became addicted to OxyContin prescribed for an injury.
Purdue Pharma has paid out $634 million in fines in the United States after a federal court ruled it had an aggressive and misleading marketing campaign related to OxyContin. The pharmaceutical giant claimed the narcotic painkiller posed a lower risk of abuse and addiction compared with other drugs such as Percocet.
Davies said 100 lawsuits are ongoing against Purdue in the U.S. at the federal, state, city and county levels, with multiple states joining forces to recoup costs for addiction treatment.
“Canada’s federal government has neither launched a criminal investigation nor sought meaningful compensation for the public costs of this crisis,” he told a news conference Thursday, adding that health-care costs of addiction across the country amounted to about $1 billion between 2011 and 2016.
“I’m looking for (the government) to investigate behaviour, and I think that’s Health Canada’s responsibility, for any product that is marketed to Canadians.”
Health Canada said it is not currently considering an investigation into Purdue’s marketing practices but has closely noted the outcome of U.S. proceedings against the company and its misleading advertising of OxyContin to health-care professionals.
Action would be taken if Health Canada determines an advertisement poses a significant safety concern or contravenes its regulations or the Food and Drugs Act, the department said in a statement.
If charges against Purdue had been pursued in Canada, the maximum penalty imposed by a court would have been $5,000 per offence, the statement said. It also noted that penalties have since increased to $5 million per offence, though a court could levy any fine against a company recklessly causing serious risk of injury.
Purdue Pharma (Canada) said in a statement that it markets its products in accordance with Health Canada’s regulations and the Food and Drugs Act.
“Canadians are facing a complex public health issue in which all stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, have a role to play to provide practical and sustainable solutions,” the statement said.
“Unfortunately, misuse and abuse and diversion of pain medications can lead to tragic consequences, including addiction, overdose and death.”
Dr. Nav Persaud, a family physician and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said a criminal investigation should be launched in Canada to determine if false claims led to a continuing overdose crisis that has also had a devastating impact in the U.S.
“The same medications are sold here for the same conditions so it would be very surprising if the inappropriate marketing stopped at the Canadian border,” said Persaud, who has spoken out against the misleading marketing of opioids.
British Columbia’s Health Ministry said the province has led efforts to recover tobacco-related health-care costs and is considering its options related to treatment of addiction.
“In light of the decision in Saskatchewan, the province is considering what options are available to recover its health-care costs from Purdue,” the ministry said in a statement.
Over 4,000 people fatally overdosed in Canada last year.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press