B.C. suing opioid makers for 'negligence and corruption' about addiction risks

B.C. Attorney General David Eby spoke of the "terrible toll" opioid addiction has taken on many British Columbians and their families as he announced a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to reclaim costs associated with the ongoing opioid crisis.

The suit, he said, was filed Wednesday morning against over 40 companies involved in the manufacture, distribution and wholesale of opioids.

The government alleges the companies downplayed the risks of their drugs when advertising them to physicians, especially when it comes to their addictive potential, thus contributing to the opioid crisis.


"No amount of money from this action can possibly make up for the loss of someone's child, someone's partner, or someone's friend," Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said at the announcement on the steps of the Vancouver Law Courts.

"Today we are clearly saying that pharmaceutical companies must take responsibility for their role and put the lives of people before profit."

He said the suit would seek to recover only costs to the public health-care system such as addiction treatment, emergency response and hospital expenses caused by what he termed the companies' "negligence and corruption."

It was not clear how much the suit would seek to recover. 

Eby said new legislation will be tabled in the fall to gather "population-based evidence" to prove the claim.

Correct focus?

In a statement issued several hours later, the B.C. Liberals accused the government of missing the mark with its action.

"This is a crisis that needs urgent response, which we are not seeing from the NDP government," addictions critic Jane Thornthwaite said in a statement. 

"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."


"We do have to anticipate this will take some time to resolve," Eby said of the suit, explaining he expects companies will "aggressively" defend themselves but the province will prevail.

Darcy agreed that the majority of overdoses in B.C. are being caused by illicitly manufactured opioids poisoned with fentanyl but its unclear how many of the people using those drugs initially became addicted through prescription drugs. She said research on that front is ongoing.

'An important moment'

Matthew Herder, director of the Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was consulted on the case and said the B.C. lawsuit is an important step.

"It's an important moment when at least one provincial government is trying to take action with some of the actors who have been, on a systemic level, more responsible for the present crisis," Herder said.

"Myself and others have long been calling for various levels of government to take action and try and hold manufacturers that are at the centre of the opioid epidemic … accountable."

There has been "little to no" legal activity against pharmaceutical companies involved in marketing opioids, Herder said, aside from a national class-action lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

He likened the lawsuit to past legal actions against tobacco companies.

A lawyer for the province declined to comment for this story.

Central question

Herder said a central question of the case will be how much the companies and their associates were aware of the potential of misuse of the highly addictive painkillers and how much they downplayed that risk.

He said there has been litigation in the U.S. involving Purdue and other companies that found awareness on the part of manufacturers and that marketing did not highlight those risks.

"I'm sure we're going to see a similar dispute about that set of facts," he told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Purdue's Canadian arm has stopped marketing opioids to doctors — direct-to-consumer drug marketing is generally prohibited in Canada — but Herder thinks that might be too little too late.

"The real issue is going to be how did we get to this point," he said.

"How much is the health-care system in British Columbia and elsewhere dealing with past practices where perhaps the company or companies were playing fast and loose with their marketing materials?"

A class-action lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma is still being hashed out in the courts. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Another complex issue, Herder said, will be if and how overprescription of opioids by physicians is linked to the use of illicit opioids, which have killed thousands of people in B.C. and Canada.

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, there were 742 unintentional overdose deaths between January and June of this year alone, largely driven by the opioid fentanyl.

Purdue Pharma did not immediately reply to a request for an interview.

With files from Yvette Brend and CBC Radio One's The Early Edition

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