B.C. moves ahead with a national opioid damages lawsuit

B.C. moves ahead with a national opioid damages lawsuit
Photo: Michelle Gamage, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The certification hearing for a lawsuit seeking damages for costs related to the toxic drug poisoning crisis has begun, BC Attorney General Niki Sharma told a small group of media gathered at the Vancouver Law Courts on Monday.

British Columbia, on behalf of Canada, has reached a settlement of $150 million with Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company owned by the Sackler family that produced the highly addictive painkiller and opioid OxyContin.

This is the largest-ever settlement of a government health claim in Canadian history, B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma said on Monday.

The settlement forms part of a much larger class-action lawsuit that asks “dozens” of pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical-adjacent companies to pay for the “significant” health-care costs associated with the toxic drug poisoning crisis, Sharma said.

B.C. started the class action in 2018 on behalf of all provinces, territories and levels of government. Since then the province has enacted the Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act, which outlines the government’s right to sue companies for their role in pushing opioids.

READ 2018 STORY: B.C. first government in Canada to sue drug companies over opioids

On Monday the province started the certification hearing for the lawsuit, where it will ask the courts for the right to pursue a single class-action lawsuit on behalf of Canada.

Downtown Eastside resident and community advocate Karen Ward is critical of the government’s decision to sue pharmaceutical companies. It is drug policy, not drugs, that is killing people, she said. The government could regulate substances and reduce deaths but is choosing not to, she added.

The unregulated illicit supply of drugs is considered toxic because the drugs contain unknown potencies and combinations of substances, which makes it extremely difficult for anyone to use illicitly purchased drugs in a safe way.

The toxicity of drugs can be reduced only with regulation, Ward said. People turn to opioids because they have health-care needs that are not being met, and it’s through prohibition that an illicit “second health-care system” of unregulated drugs has been created, she said.

The lawsuit demonizes opioids, Ward said. The backlash against prescription opioids has also meant that people living with chronic pain, disabilities and injuries have a harder time accessing necessary medications, which can drive them to buy from the toxic unregulated supply, she added.

On Monday, Sharma spoke about how she was proud of the work B.C. has done for the lawsuit.

“We are holding multinational pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in today’s public health emergency,” Sharma said. The government alleges these companies engaged in “deceptive marketing tactics to increase sales, which led to an increased rate of addictions and overdose,” she added.

In the United States, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal charges of downplaying the addictive properties of OxyContin and pushing for high-volume prescriptions.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2019. As part of the large U.S. settlement, the Sacklers were ordered to pay US$6 billion (estimated to be about half of their family fortune) but were granted immunity from all future civil suits.

The New York Times reported that the settlement ended thousands of U.S. lawsuits and maintained the Sackler family’s status as one of the wealthiest families in America.

In the U.S., opioid overdoses have killed more than half a million people since 1999, with deaths spiking from 2014 to 2021. In B.C. the toxic drug crisis has killed more than 13,100 people since the province declared a public health emergency in April 2016.

Sharma said it was too early to provide a definitive list of the companies that would be named in the class action. She also declined to offer a ballpark estimate of how much a final Canadian settlement could be, once again noting that the lawsuit is still in its early stages.

“While no amount of money will ever bring back the people who have lost their lives due to toxic unregulated drugs, our battle against the wrongful conduct of businesses and their marketing consultants is another meaningful step to address the toxic drug crisis,” Sharma added.

The province is doing “everything it can to make sure people have access to a range of mental health and addiction supports,” she said.

Ward pointed out that the $150 million settlement represents a fraction of the Vancouver Police Department’s annual budget of $373.5 million.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside was supposed to attend Monday’s press conference but was unable to be there.

Sharma said a settlement would be used to “continue to invest in all those programs and services that are there for British Columbians and keep on working on undoing the harm that was done by the wrongful conduct of some of these companies.”

Ward said it was important to reflect on how the work being done by the government today will help save lives from the toxic drug overdose crisis in the future.

“This seems like a public relations stunt to avoid addressing what is at the root of these deaths. We’re in this situation where we’re signing off on and sanctioning thousands of future deaths that we could prevent,” she said.

By Michelle Gamage, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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