A Toronto law firm is suing more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of manufacturing an opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of Canadians and of reaping “obscene” profits through a “false and deceptive” marketing campaign.
Koskie Minsky filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in an Ontario court on Wednesday, alleging that the companies misled doctors and the public by playing down the risks associated with opioids and promoting them to treat everything from chronic back pain to fibromyalgia.
“Pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for their negligence, not just in manufacturing these products, but in manufacturing this crisis,” said Kirk Baert, a lawyer at the firm.
Koskie Minsky is seeking to certify the case as a national class-action suit. The lead plaintiff is a former emergency room doctor in Barrie, Ont., who spent several weeks in a drug rehabilitation centre after becoming addicted to the painkiller Percocet.
The list of 28 defendants includes Purdue Pharma, whose OxyContin pain pill has been implicated in Canada’s overdose epidemic; Bristol-Myers Squibb Canada, the maker of Percocet; and Apotex, the country’s largest generic-drug maker.
The lawsuit is the latest salvo against players in the opioid industry. The British Columbia government launched a lawsuit last August against drug manufacturers and retailers that sold the drugs, the first of its kind by a government in Canada, in an effort to recover public-health costs associated with the opioid epidemic.
In the first nine months of 2018 alone, 3,286 people died of opioid-related overdoses across the country.
A proposed national class-action settlement remains on hold after a Saskatchewan judge rejected it last March, saying the $20-million in compensation that Purdue has agreed to pay is neither fair nor reasonable for the people who became addicted to the drug after their doctors prescribed it. A hearing before a different judge in Saskatchewan is set for September.
The latest lawsuit filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice accuses the drug manufacturers of engaging in “false, reckless and deceptive” marketing by promoting opioids as safe to treat routine pain conditions. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, doctors began prescribing the drugs in the 1990s and pharmaceutical companies reaped “obscene” profits.
The companies failed to warn doctors and the general public that anyone who used opioids would be at significant risk of becoming addicted to the drugs, alleges the lawsuit, which is seeking damages of $1.1-billion.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
Dr. Darryl Gebien, the representative plaintiff, became addicted to opioids a decade ago when he took Percocet painkillers after a ligament injury in his thumb. He then switched to fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has been linked to numerous overdose deaths.
Dr. Gebien told The Globe and Mail in 2016 that the lack of a social network in Barrie and stress at work compounded the issue, so he began self-medicating. His addiction has had a significant and lasting impact on his life, the lawsuit alleges. He lost his licence to practise medicine. He was incarcerated for drug trafficking and forging fake prescriptions to feed his habit and he no longer has custody of his children.
The lawsuit launched by the B.C. government, meanwhile, has received broad support from other provinces and territories, said a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney-General. David Eby, the Attorney-General, told reporters last August that Purdue was one of a number of companies that engaged in “illegal actions to drive profits.”
Purdue has acknowledged in the United States that its marketing of OxyContin was misleading, with the company and three of its top executives paying a total of US$634.5-million in 2007 to settle criminal and civil charges. Purdue’s Canadian operation has not made a similar admission of wronging.
A spokesperson for Purdue said the company cannot comment on the latest lawsuit because it has not yet been served with the legal documents. The company has previously said it has always marketed its products in compliance with Canada’s rules, including the federal Food and Drugs Act (FDA). Bristol-Myers and Apotex did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Canada’s opioid epidemic traces its roots to the mid-1990s, with the introduction of OxyContin.
Health Canada approved the drug in 1996 to relieve moderate to severe pain; until then, opioids had been used primarily for the seriously and terminally ill. Canada is the world’s second-highest per capita consumer of prescription opioids after the United States.
OxyContin was the top-selling long-acting opioid for more than a decade. At the same time, reports of addiction and overdose mounted among those who were prescribed the drug and those who used diverted pills illicitly. Purdue promoted OxyContin in North America as safer and less addictive than other opioids, encouraging doctors to prescribe it more widely.
The company stopped marketing its opioids in Canada last June, in response to the federal government calling on drug companies to suspend marketing activities associated with opioids.
Purdue pulled OxyContin from the market in 2012, shortly before the patent was to expire. A host of other, stronger drugs filled the void, including illicit fentanyl, which began appearing on the streets in Canada in 2012 and which is responsible for a majority of overdose deaths.