Attorney General David Eby and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy face the press as they announce a class action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies in order to make them pay for the opioid crisis at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)

B.C. suing drug companies to recoup overdose crisis costs

More than 2,000 people have died in B.C. because of illicit drug overdoses in the past two years

Standing on the steps of B.C.’s Supreme Court in Vancouver Wednesday, Attorney General David Eby announced that the province is headed to court to make drug companies pay for an opioid crisis that has claimed thousands of lives since 2016.

Eby and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said B.C. is launching a class-action lawsuit against more than 40 opioid manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors.

“This morning… we have initiated a class action lawsuit against the different manufacturers and distributors of brand name and generic opioid medications in order to recover the public health care costs we allege were increased dramatically by their actions,” said Eby.

“We can’t yet know precisely the financial costs incurred by B.C. as a result of the actions of these firms. The cost is rising everyday.”

READ MORE: More than 130 people in B.C. died of illicit drug overdoses in July

READ MORE: Advocates slam B.C. government ads meant to fight overdose crisis

Nearly 900 people have died as a result of opioid-related overdoses in 2018 alone, and more than 3,300 have died since the average death toll nearly doubled in 2016.

The province will seek to recoup “the cost of treating problematic use and addiction, the cost of emergency services in response to overdose events, the cost of hospital treatment and so on.”

Eby referred to a 2007 agreed statement of fact signed by pharmaceutical giant Purdue Frederick with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia.

The statement acknowledges that “certain Purdue supervisors and employees, with the intent to defraud or mislead, marketed and promoted OxyContin as less addictive, less subject to abuse and diversion, and less likely to cause tolerance and withdrawal than other pain medications.”

The illegal actions “dramatically increased company profits,” Eby said, and is the basis for the suit launched by B.C.

“We allege that Purdue is not alone in their illegal actions to drive profits,” he said.

The province filed its statement of claim Wednesday morning, and Eby said they are speaking with other provinces about collaborating on a larger suit.

Eby noted that “this litigation does not attempt to recover any damages for any family members affected by wrongdoing,” but simply to cover the costs born by the health care system as a result of the overdose crises.

The lawsuit goes hand-in-hand with an opioid damages and health-care costs recovery act to be introduced in B.C.’s legislature this fall, Darcy said.

“We know that 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,” said Darcy.

“Deceptive marketing practices by opioid manufacturers to increase demand for their product without regard to the consequences on people’s lives is the target of our actions today.”

Attorney General David Eby and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy explain the details of a class action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)

Darcy acknowledged that while many opioids do have legitimate medical purposes, “there is sufficient evidence… that pharmaceutical companies knowingly and aggressively marketed these drugs to physicians and to the public well after they knew that there were risks attached to them.”

She was unable to provide a figure for the number of victims of medically-prescribed opioids versus those killed by a tainted street supply of drugs.

“Certainly, the majority of people who are dying today of overdoses are dying as a result of street drugs that are laced with fentanyl,” Darcy admitted.

“But today we are clearly saying that pharmaceutical companies must take responsibility for their role and put the lives of people before profit.”

Darcy said the province is investigating how many people who were first prescribed opioids by a doctor have since switched to street drugs to quench their addiction.

Eby said that Wednesday’s class-action suit was modelled on a similar suit against tobacco companies in 1998.

Although Eby admitted that the tobacco lawsuit remains tied up in the courts nearly two decades after it began, he said the province has learned lessons from that case.

“We do understand that these types of claims are defended aggressively by the firms that are targeted but that is no reason for us not to pursue cases where we believe that people have failed to take actions in a way that harmed British Columbians,” Eby said.


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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