Action on Opioid Crisis Means Confronting Corporate Profiteers

PV Ontario Bureau

Between 2009 and 2014, there were at least 655 deaths in Canada due to overdoses involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. In 2016, there were 867 opioid-related deaths in Ontario alone.

Opioid drugs are among the most widely-prescribed class of medications in Canada, and Canadians are currently the second highest per capita consumers of prescription opioid medications in the world.

Prescription opioids like OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Percodan, Tylox and Demerol are widely available and highly addictive. This has resulted in a dramatic rise in the rate of opioid dependency and has fueled a growing crisis that affects every area of Canada.

The depth of the crisis has spurred much discussion and debate amongst regulatory bodies, healthcare experts and the public, and some jurisdictions have begun to take initial steps. In Ontario, the provincial government has made naloxone kits available free-of-charge at pharmacies and public health units, and has implemented improved systems to track opioid prescribing and opioid-related ER visits, hospitalizations and deaths. But the response in Ontario, or any jurisdiction, has remained unacceptably tepid.

Specifically, very little has been said about the damning role of the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry in sparking the opioid crisis. In 1995, US-based Purdue Pharma began to market the semisynthetic opioid OxyContin to physicians as a safe and effective means of controlling chronic, non-cancer pain. Purdue, by its own admission, deliberately misled physicians about the risks of prescribing this drug, claiming that it had little addictive potential. As a result, OxyContin became the first opioid drug to be widely used to manage pain, opening the way for massive over-prescription and resultant surge in opioid addiction.

The spike in opioid addiction facilitated the rise in an underground market of street opioids, including the ultra-potent carfentanyl. All of this has led to the highest narcotic abuse rates in history. In addition to overdose-related deaths, the opioid crisis has also led to a resurgence in the rate of HIV transmission in Ontario municipalities, as well as a spike in new cases of sepsis and endocarditis related to injection drug use.

Against this tragic backdrop, Purdue Pharma remains largely untouched by the crisis they helped create. The corporation had profits of $35 billion USD in 2017 and has been permitted to manufacture and sell “next-generation” opioid medications.

In Ontario, the Communist Party has issued calls for the government to declare a public health emergency, to mobilize maximum resources to combat the opioid crisis. Ontario Communist leader Dave McKee said such a declaration must include “immediate funding and pressure on municipalities across the province to establish safe consumption sites, as well as using all legal measures to hold Purdue Pharma responsible for their role in this disaster.”

The Communist Party is also calling for measures to reduce the dependency on opioid medications for chronic pain management, including re-listing physiotherapy coverage under public healthcare, and public funding for multidisciplinary pain clinics that can effectively provide non-pharmacological modalities of chronic pain control.

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