Ethos Ho, BSc Pharm Candidate
The Spark That Ignited a Crisis
In our previous article about the history of fentanyl and the opioid crisis, we talked about how the discontinuation of OxyContin® by Purdue Pharma L.P. in 2012 sparked a chain of events leading to the fentanyl crisis we currently face in Canada. Following the ignition of this crisis, major pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma L.P. has been brought to court, where a Canada-wide class-action lawsuit is underway against the billion-dollar company. Today, we talk about the claims made against Purdue Pharma L.P., as well as several other legal disputes the company’s faced in the past.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The claims made against Purdue Pharma L.P. revolve around deceptive marketing practices that promoted and exaggerated the safety of their product OxyContin® in the early 90’s.1 When OxyContin® was approved by Health Canada in 1996 for the treatment of moderate to severe pain, an extensive marketing campaign for the medication began in Canada. Manufacturers’ sales representatives promised patients and prescribers that OxyContin® provided long-lasting relief for an array of ailments with minimal side effects, and low risk of addiction.2
Unfortunately, this was not the case, and Oxycontin® rapidly became a drug of abuse and a well-known recreational substance after a short period. Oxycontin® tablets were often crushed to be snorted or injected, leading to increases in both overdoses and addiction. In response to growing concerns about abuse, Purdue Pharma L.P. removed OxyContin® from the Canadian market in 2012 and replaced it with a new tamper-resistant product, OxyNEO® to prevent its abuse. Unfortunately, those who had already become dependent on the original drug quickly shifted their focus to other street alternatives including heroin.2 At the same time, the use of a powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl, began to rise due to its low cost and high potency.2 The events that followed eventually escalated to become the Canadian opioid crisis of today, where it’s estimated that 4,000 Canadians in 2017 alone have died from opioid-related deaths – a 40% increase from less than 3,000 in 2016.2 All of this is being tied to the profit-driven actions of pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma L.P.
A Rounding Error for a Billion Dollar Company
The lengthy legal battle with Purdue Pharma L.P. led to an agreed settlement of $20 million in April 2017, with $2 million intended to go to health authorities and about a quarter million expected to go to legal fees.3,4 The class-action lawsuit represented as many as 1,500 Canadians who became addicted to OxyContin®, with the average payout expected to be between $13,000 and $18,000 per person, depending on how many individuals qualified.4 Purdue Pharma L.P. agreed to the settlement without admission of guilt for their deceptive marketing practices.1-4 Since then, experts have criticized this amount, comparing it to little more than a rounding error for a company that originally generated over $US 31 billion in revenue from sales of OxyContin®.4
In 2007, a similar lawsuit was made against Purdue Pharma L.P. in the US, where the company’s three top executives pleaded guilty to misleading the U.S. public. These claims resulted in a settlement of over $US 634.5 million in criminal and civil charges.2,4 However, the Canadian lawsuit currently remains on hold after a Saskatchewan judge declined to sign off on the deal.2
The Bottom Line
The approval of OxyContin® into the Canadian market in 1996 has resulted in a decade-long battle with addiction, overdose, and deaths that have affected countless people. Despite the efforts of Purdue Pharma L.P. to remove OxyContin® from the market and replace it with the tamper-resistant OxyNEO®, the aftermath of previous addictions and misleading marketing practices continues to be felt today. Currently, the Canadian-wide lawsuit against Purdue Pharma L.P. continues, following the denial of a $20 million settlement claim by a Saskatchewan judge. Nonetheless, no amount of compensation can reverse the damage done to the individuals and families that have been affected by the opioid crisis.
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