OxyContin maker agrees to $20M settlement in Canadian class-action case

Ottawa pushed to prosecute Purdue Pharma over 'deceptive' marketing of OxyContin

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has agreed to pay $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving allegations about how the pain pills were marketed.

"A Canada-wide settlement has been reached in a long-standing class action based on allegations relating to OxyContin. By resolving the suit, Purdue Pharma (Canada) makes no admissions of liability," Sarah Manley Robertson, director of communications, said in an email on Monday.

The allegations concerned "overmarketing" of the drug, said Halifax lawyer Ray Wagner, whose firm launched the class action in 2007 in Atlantic Canada. The suit was expanded to include every province, Wagner said.

"Information in our allegation was basically that they were underreporting the addictiveness of the medication," Wagner said.

The settlement totals $20 million with $2 million allocated to provincial health providers, Wagner said. It is provisional on the court ensuring it is in the best interests of absent class members.

"We're very thankful for the class members who've been waiting for 10 years to get to this point," Wagner said. 

Wagner said his clients were typically prescribed OxyContin by a family physician for short-term injuries such as a sprained ankle.

'It near took my life away'

Clients represent a spectrum of society, from Olympic athletes to RCMP officers and labourers, Wagner said.

Steven MacGillvary, 53, of Glace Bay, N.S., was first prescribed OxyContin after he shattered a clavicle on the job repairing municipal water works in 2000.

"Not only did it take the pain away, it took a lot of things away. It took my worries away and cares away and at the end of it, it near took my life away."

MacGillvary walked away from his job and lost touch with his children. He's relieved to have it all back following methadone maintenance.

There were twists, turns and bumps in the road to the settlement, but MacGillvary hopes it will help his healing to continue.

In the U.S., three executives with the U.S. branch of Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in a U.S. Federal Court to misleading regulators and an unsuspecting public about the risk of addiction to OxyContin.

Dr. David Juurlink, a drug safety researcher at the University of Toronto, said he has mixed feelings about the Canadian settlement announcement and how it holds the company to account.

"Payments like this are a rounding error for big drug companies," Juurlink said. "They don't really serve as a meaningful deterrent in any way."

Juurlink would like to see Canadian regulators investigate as the U.S. Justice Department did.

"I think the fair question that might be asked is, did Purdue engage in questionable or even illegal activities in the marketing of OxyContin in Canada?"

Physicians took the company's marketing messages to heart, Juurlink said, because they want to relieve pain.

He said he's seen a shift in the last few years in how doctors prescribe opioids. They've become more mindful of the lack of good evidence for their long-term use as well as the potential for harm, he said.