Marketing of opioids to end in Canada

Jul 24, 2018

In response to a call to action from Canadian Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, wherein she asked pharmaceutical companies to restrict their marketing of dangerous opioids in light of the climbing death toll from opioid abuse across the country, Oxycontin’s manufacturer Purdue Pharma is one of five drug companies that has just announced it will no longer actively promote its prescription opioids within Canada. Although it will still discuss opioids with Canadian health care professionals when requests for information are made, as of June 20th, Purdue Pharma has “suspended all promotional and advertising activities relating to [its] prescription opioids, pending the outcome of…consultation and the implementation of new regulations.”

In spite of Purdue’s withdrawal of Oxycontin and purported claims that they will be changing their marketing scheme, some doctors are doubtful that the pharmaceutical company will actually significantly alter its practices. Dr. Nav Persaud, doctor and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, calls the changes “mostly a distraction” from Purdue’s responsibility for the opioid crisis due to its long history of marketing Oxycontin as a reliable and safe chronic pain management treatment and the resulting over-prescription of the drug across the nation.

Over a decade ago in the USA, Purdue Pharma admitted to exaggerating Oxycontin’s safety in its promotions as well as downplaying the addictive risks. As a result, it has paid more than $634.5 million USD in fines and in February announced it would not be marketing opioids to medical professionals in the USA, and had cut its sales staff by 50%.

Canada’s opioid crisis can be traced back to 1996, when Oxycontin was first introduced to the Canadian market as a pain reliever in addition to its original and primary use as a treatment for terminal cancer patients. For more than ten years, until Purdue pulled it from the market in 2012 just before the expiration of its patent, Oxycontin was the top selling opioid in Canada. Because it was overly prescribed while on the market and subsequently made its way onto the street, stronger drugs like heroin and fentanyl have filled the gap Oxycontin has left in its wake with increasingly deadly results.

Purdue has never admitted responsibility for the proliferation of opioids in Canada and has claimed instead that it has conducted itself legally, saying, “Purdue Pharma (Canada) has always marketed its products in line with the Health Canada approved product monograph and in compliance with all relevant rules, regulations and codes, including the Food and Drugs Act and the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board (PAAB) Code.” However, without admitting fault, Purdue settled a class-action lawsuit in Saskatchewan for $20 million dollars this past March, a number that ultimately didn’t satisfy the judge who presided over the case. Purdue is currently seeking an appeal so that its settlement payout can progress without further penalty, with a hearing set for August 22nd in the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan.

Purdue has further claimed that it has gone to great lengths to make “tamper-resistant” and “abuse-deterrent” versions of their drugs, like OxyNeo, which contains oxycodone. Persaud argues that Purdue is laying false blame on the consumer, saying, “It’s concerning [that] even where they are claiming to be attempting to help with the problem, they continue to advance this narrative that it’s really about abuse…They don’t mention anything about the fact that they spread misinformation and based on that misinformation, people who should not have been exposed to opioids were exposed.”