The B.C. government is pressing ahead with a class-action lawsuit against multi-national drug companies, based on a health-costs case against tobacco companies that still drags on 20 years after it was filed.
Attorney General David Eby introduced legislation this week that intends to speed up the presentation of evidence showing medical and other costs to the province. It also attempts to shift the burden of proof to pharmaceutical companies that their marketing and distribution of opioid painkillers didn’t lead to harm and health costs to the province.
Eby acknowledged that the opioid case could take as long as the tobacco lawsuit, launched by the previous NDP government in 1997 with similar legislation to back it up. Opposition MLAs questioned taking on a new set of open-ended legal costs.
“The concern is, how much are they going to spend on legal fees rather than helping people, because this will only bear fruit a decade from now, whereas people are dying today,” said B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, a former doctor and lawyer who practised medical-related law.
In the legislature, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy gave examples of the advertising used by Purdue Pharma, which halted its advertising in Canada in June at the request of the federal government. Purdue’s opioid painkiller Oxycontin was a market leader that ended up sold as a street drug with the nickname “hillbilly heroin.”
Darcy told the legislature of a May 2007 settlement in Virginia, where Purdue admitted misleading marketing and paid $600 million in criminal and civil settlements.
Darcy described Oxycontin ads that she said misled doctors and patients. One shows a “fit-looking jogger” with the slogan “One to start and stay with,” and another ad advised: “When you know acetaminophen will not be enough, take the next step in pain relief.”
B.C. has led Canada in the number of overdose deaths as opioid addiction has climbed across North America, fuelled by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl that has been smuggled across the Pacific from illegal factories in China to feed the street drug market.
Darcy said no money will be diverted from the province’s fund of more than $300 million to combat the overdose crisis, including expanded access to overdose drug Naloxone, opening more supervised injection sites, and launching an overdose emergency response centre with “community action teams” in 20 B.C. communities.