Canadian drug makers hit with $1.1B suit for pushing opioids despite risks

TORONTO — Canadian drug makers enriched themselves at the expense of vulnerable patients by illegally and deceptively promoting highly addictive opioids that have killed thousands in recent years, a proposed class action filed Wednesday asserts.

The untested statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court seeks more than $1.1 billion in various damages from almost two dozen companies, including some of the biggest pharmaceutical names in the country such as Apotex, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson and Johnson and the Jean Coutu Group.

The suit, filed on behalf of patients who became addicted to prescribed opioids, also seeks a declaration that the companies were negligent in how they researched, developed and marketed opioids starting in the 1990s.

“The defendants knew that anyone who injected opioids would be at significant risk of becoming addicted,” the claim asserts. “As such, the defendants breached statutory and common law duties to the plaintiff and class who became addicted to opioids for which the defendants owe damages.”

The proposed representative plaintiff is Darryl Gebien, of Toronto, a doctor prescribed the opioid Percocet for a ligament injury in his thumb. Gebien became addicted, the claim asserts.

“Dr. Gebien’s addiction had a significant and lasting impact on his life,” the claim states. “Dr. Gebien lost his licence to practise medicine. He lost his job. He was incarcerated. He lost custody of his children.”

Opioids are a powerful narcotic that can induce an addictive, euphoric high that requires higher doses over time to maintain effectiveness and avoid symptoms of withdrawal. The drugs were not widely prescribed for pain treatment because they were considered too addictive but that approach changed in the mid-1990s.

“The defendants promoted opioids as safe, effective and appropriate for long-term use for routine pain conditions,” the claim states. “The aggressive marketing efforts of the defendants were incredibly successful.”

No statements of defence have been filed and there was no immediate comment from any of the drug companies. Purdue has previous said it marketed its products in accordance with the rules.

The abuse of opioids has become a widespread public health crisis, with fatal overdoses becoming epidemic across North America. They have killed more than 20,000 Canadians over the past 20 years and about 4,000 new deaths occur annually in Canada. In the United States, opioids kill more people than car crashes.

Lawyer Kirk Baert called the lawsuit “long overdue.”

“These companies need to be accountable for the harm they have caused to thousands of Canadians,” Baert said.

The named defendants make, market, distribute and sell opioids in Canada. Some of the drugs such as fentanyl, oxycodone, and tramadol have become household names in light of the ravages they have wrought.

The statement of claim alleges the companies indulged in a pattern of “false and deceptive” marketing by, among other things, telling patients that opioid use for pain relief would improve their quality of life without any adverse effects such as addiction or withdrawal issues.

“The defendants knew or ought to have known that their representations regarding the risks and benefits of opioids were not supported by, or were contrary to, scientific evidence,” the claim asserts. ”(They) advised health-care professionals to ignore signs of addiction on the basis of an unfounded condition they called pseudoaddiction.”

Last year, the British Columbia government, which declared a public health emergency in 2016, also filed a proposed class action against pharmaceutical companies in an attempt to recoup the health-care costs associated with opioid addiction. That suit named 40 defendants. Other provinces have also considered taking such action.

This month, the maker of OxyContin in the United States was hit with another state lawsuit that alleges it kept pitching the painkiller to doctors even after its sales representatives raised concerns about inappropriate prescribing. The lawsuit against Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, which has said it may have to go bankrupt, made Pennsylvania at least the 39th state to sue the company.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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