Weighing the Cost of Corporate Accountability

Pharmaceutical companies should pay for their role in perpetuating B.C.’s opioid epidemic


From the first day of 2016 to the last day of July 2018, the BC Coroners Service reported that 3,214 people died as a result of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia. Prescription opioids, including codeine, oxycodone, morphine, and hydromorphone were detected in 16.5 per cent, or one in six, of these deaths.  

This means that, over the course of two and a half years, around 512 deaths in the province were caused by or related to opioid medications that can be legally prescribed to patients as pain killers. The epidemic of opioid addiction, overdoses, and deaths has been putting a growing burden on the B.C. healthcare system as well as community resources and social programs. Now, to address their culpability in the epidemic, the provincial government has filed a class-action lawsuit against 40 different pharmaceutical companies.

The government claims that the marketing practices of companies including Apotex, Johnson & Johnson, Endo, Mylan, Purdue Pharma, and Loblaws were misleading, and that these companies developed and sold drugs like OxyContin and Percocet without fully informing doctors and patients of the high risk of addiction associated with using the opioids.

According to the civil claim notice, in 2016 alone, Purdue—the company that sells OxyContin—gave $2 million to Canadian doctors “as part of their marketing efforts.” The government believes that this constitutes “negligence” and “fraudulent misrepresentation and deceit” on the part of the company.

In 2017, The City of Vancouver increased property taxes by 0.5 per cent to fund a contingency reserve for dealing with “the ongoing community impacts of the overdose crisis.” The reserve holds $3.5 million of municipal taxpayers’ money; Every single property owner in Vancouver is now contributing financial aid to combat the opioid epidemic.

If taxpayers in the city can be called upon to take responsibility for helping counteract the crisis, surely the companies that manufacture the drugs which are likely making it worse should also be held accountable.

While this lawsuit is the first of its kind in Canada, it’s not completely unprecedented. Decades ago, B.C.’s campaign against tobacco companies showed that corporations profiting from products that cause illness or death will be held responsible for their impact on the medical system and, ultimately, the taxpayers.

Companies like Purdue that allegedly lied to medical professionals and the public about the true dangers of opioid painkillers have caused unimaginable anguish for thousands of families across the province. It’s a cost that the individuals responsible—those who chose to prioritize company profits over the safety and wellbeing of others—will never truly pay.

In fact, whatever settlement is ultimately reached is guaranteed to be infuriatingly disproportionate to the money that these companies have made. As of 2017, Purdue has reportedly generated $35 billion from OxyContin alone. Those behind this mass tragedy will not face true justice until the penalties associated with corporate accountability outweigh the profits that their companies stand to gain.

Until then, this cycle will never end, and the sociopaths behind big pharma’s mantra will continue to ring true: It’s just the cost of doing business.