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B.C. suing drug companies for opioid crisis healthcare costs

Last Updated Aug 29, 2018 at 2:50 pm PDT

As the opioid crisis continues to spiral out of control, Attorney General David Eby has announced the provincial government is initiating a class-action lawsuit against 40 different drug distributors and manufactures, including Purdue which makes Oxycontin. (Lasia Kretzel, NEWS 1130 Photo)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The B.C. government is suing 40 drug manufacturers, alleging the pharmaceutical companies have had a direct hand in causing and perpetuating the current opioid crisis.

Attorney General David Eby says the class-action lawsuit challenges the companies’ marketing practices of opiods, alleging the companies knowingly lied about the addictive nature and side effects of the drugs. It is meant to recoup healthcare costs linked to the crisis.

“While money can never address the human toll of this tragedy, it is my responsibility as Attorney General, to take action where we believe corporations or individuals have acted to harm the people of BC. This is one of those situations,”  Eby told reporters outside the Supreme Court in Vancouver.

B.C. is the first province to take the pharmaceutical companies to court over the issue, and Eby encouraged others to join his suit.

The province is setting sights on drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma — the makers of OxyContin.

“We allege that Purdue is not alone in their illegal actions to drive profits, but in fact was accompanied by 40 different manufacturers and distributors of opioid medications in Canada,” Eby said

The province claims the public healthcare cost associated with the opioid crisis was increased dramatically by the actions of brand and non-brand name manufacturers.

The province is not seeking legal action against doctors who prescribed opioids, according to Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy.

“There are legitimate reasons for prescribing opioids for pain. Chronic pain is a very complicated issue and there certainly are guidelines in place regarding prescribing practices. This lawsuit is not about that,” Darcy said. “This legal action is about pharmaceutical companies that aggressively marketed these products knowing the risks and not alerting physicians or the public to the risks.”

The province, however, cannot say how many people who were on prescription opioids became addicted and later turned to street drugs, according to Darcy.

The provincial government has been down this road before. Back in the 1990s, the previous NDP government sued tobacco companies to help recoup the costs of treating smokers. The lawsuit has yet to yield any significant payouts.

“We do understand that these types of claims are defended, often aggressively, by the firms that are targeted, but that is no reason for us not to pursue case where we believe that people have taken actions or failed to take actions in a way that harmed British Columbians,” Eby said. “Simply because it may take a while for us to see some results from this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”

Eby says he was encouraged by the Supreme Court of Canada’s July decision to deny tobacco company Philip Morris Internationa access to provincial health databases in order to mount a defence in the 17-year-old case.

The total costs of both tobacco and opioids are not known, according to Eby, including addiction treatment, emergency responses to overdoses, and hospital treatment.

After filing the notice of civil claim, Eby adds the provincial government is in talks with other jurisdictions across the country about joining it in this legal action.

Eby also plans to table a new Opioid Damages and Healthcare Costs Recovery Act in the legislature this fall. The act would provide the court with information about the ongoing crisis, including statistical data, budget information and opioid-related costs as a whole.

“It will allow us to accurately prove our claim, relying on population based evidence,” he explains. “And it will result in a hearing that is fair, but is also faster and more efficient, reducing unnecessary pressure on the courts.”

The goal of this action, however, is not an attempt to recover damages for families who’ve lost loved ones to an overdose, Eby says, but rather to to reimburse taxpayers for “that part of the public healthcare expenses connected to any proven negligence or illegality on the part of these companies.”

Eby was joined by Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy for the announcement.

Lawsuit won’t save lives: opposition

While it supports any initiative aimed at saving lives and holding those responsible accountable, the Liberal party says the provincial government’s announcement won’t actually save any lives.

“Four people die every day from an opioid overdose in this province,” Liberal Critic for Mental Health and Addictions Jane Thornthwaite wrote in a release. “This is a crisis that needs urgent response, which we are not seeing from the NDP government. A court case that will likely drag out over decades will not save lives and could divert scarce resources away from front-line response and solutions that will help people get well.”

She worries the case will also have “the unintended consequence of making people believe there’s only one culprit behind the overdose epidemic,” explaining instead that there is a “chain of failures that needs to be addressed.

“To suggest that this is solely about drug companies is an overly simplistic response and focuses too much attention on one single part of the problem,” she adds.

Thornthwaite believes immediate action is needed to address the issue, and points to initiatives she proposed like that Safe Care Act as possible solutions to helping addicts get better.

“The NDP refused to even discuss the bill, which has wide support from the addictions recovery community,” she claims. “Sadly, today’s announcement will not save any lives. I call on the NDP to take meaningful action and table my bill for debate on the first day that the Legislature resumes.”

Mother who lost son to overdose hopeful lawsuit will raise awareness

Leslie McBain lost her only child — Jordan Miller — in 2014 to an opioid overdose.

The 25-year-old became addicted when he was prescribed an opioid for pain relief after suffering a back injury at work, McBain explains.

She claims the doctors repeatedly prescribed Ocycodone, made by Purdue Pharma which actually no longer markets the drug in Canada.

“It’s worse than frustrating. It’s enraging. I mean, what makes them, big pharma, any different than thugs who are making fentanyl and putting it on the black market knowing that it’s going to kill some people? It’s unconscionable.”

The woman from Pender Island says she hasn’t taken any legal action on her own, but she fully supports this move by the NDP government.

“They have the funds and the capacity to do that, um, and it is a great thing that they’re taking this. I’m quite surprised, but I’m surprised in a good way. This will bring awareness — great awareness — to the problem and in many different sectors.”

She adds sh’es willing to testify against the company in court, if needed. “I have a good case, you know, against what Purdue and the marketers of Oxycodone have done.”

In 2016, McBain co-founded the groups Moms Stop the Harm and works as a family advocate for the B.C. Centre on Substance Abuse