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Editorial: Drug money

Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen.
Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen.

Some things just don’t add up. This week, the Canadian Centre for Health Information complied information for CBC News that spells out that provincial governments in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador spent $52 million on opioid prescriptions in the five years between 2010 and 2015.

Public drug plans across the country spent $423.3 million on the drugs in the same period.

At the same time, provincial governments across the country have agreed to settle their part of a major lawsuit against the biggest opioid profit-maker, Purdue Pharma. The class-action suit will be settled for $20 million — just $2 million of which is destined for provincial drug plans. After that settlement, which the provinces have agreed to, they’ll be unable to move forward in “initiating, asserting or prosecuting any claim, action, litigation, investigation or other proceeding in any court of law … or any other forum” in relation to the use and abuse of the company’s delay-release painkiller, OxyContin — a drug so often abused it came to be known by the nickname “hillybilly heroin.”

As part of the settlement, Purdue Pharma doesn’t even have to admit liability for the effects of the drug.

Contrast that with the United States, where pharmaceutical companies have paid various levels of government US$35.7 billion over the last 25 years to cover liability issues.

Something has to change.

After all, Purdue Pharma paid the state of Kentucky — just one single state — US$24 million to settle a lawsuit there.

The problem is that drug regulation is a federal issue, and our federal government has taken a long-standing co-operative approach with drug manufacturers.

But damage is being done on a huge scale in this country as a result of the abuse of opioid drugs, and that crisis tracks straight back to the introduction of OxyContin.

Keep this in mind: as a result of the drug company misleadingly telling doctors and others that OxyContin was less addictive than other painkillers, Purdue Pharma paid US$634.5 million in 2007 to settle criminal and civil charges. Here, they won’t even admit there’s a problem.

At the same time, the company took in total revenues of US$31 billion by selling OxyContin.

How should the system actually work?

If a drug causes large-scale harm, the company that profited from that harm should be fully responsible for cleaning up its mess. At the very least, no drug company should ever end up turning a profit from a drug that does more harm than good.

Provincial legislators are calling on Ottawa to take federal action against the drug manufacturer under the Food and Drug Act. It’s very much the right call.

No one — and no company, however large and powerful — should be allowed to profit from the misery of others.

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