“I believe this is a defining moment for us as health ministers, when we can show how we can work together and get results that make a difference in the lives of hard-working Canadian families, and their communities.”
— Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, in a letter to provincial health ministers this month
The federal health minister wrote the above statement after provincial health ministers had requested she use her authority to delay approvals for the generic form of OxyContin — a highly addictive narcotic often prescribed by doctors as relief for patients suffering from cancer and other painful conditions.
Earlier this year, the federal government withdrew funding for OxyContin as the drug’s maker, Purdue Pharma, launched its new version of the painkiller.
Called OxyNEO, the drug has been designed to be more difficult to abuse. As the Toronto Star reports, Health Canada says the tablets have been hardened and form a gel when in contact with water, but there remains no proof that it will ease illegal abuse.
In fact, a quick search on the Internet by the Sun found several message board threads in which addicts claimed to have found a way to inject OxyNEO.
And the stage has now been set for an explosion of abuse when copies of the original product reach the Canadian market — even if they remain prescription drugs. With Purdue Pharma’s patent on OxyContin set to end on Nov. 25 — yesterday — several companies had expressed interest in licensing generic forms of the drug.
While OxyContin has been highly effective in providing pain relief for patients, it has also caused an epidemic of abuse, particularly on northern First Nations, where illicit use of the drug has caused overdoses and death.
Over the past two years, provincial governments have worked to restrict OxyContin’s use. Last March, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI decided to remove OxyContin and OxyNEO from their provincial formularies.
Two years ago, Manitoba restricted new prescriptions for OxyContin to cancer patients or those with chronic conditions who can’t tolerate or benefit from other medications. And just recently, Ontario’s health minister called for an outright ban of the drug.
Yet in spite of overwhelming concerns that a potential flood of generic — and less expensive — OxyContin clones would exacerbate drug abuse, Aglukkaq said she would not interfere in the approval process, saying scientists, not politicians, should decide which drugs are approved.
Instead, the federal health minister noted Ottawa would move to tighten licensing rules to force oxycodone distributors to keep better track of where the drug goes. As the Winnipeg Free Press reported last week, starting in 2013, distributors must report spikes in sales and changes in distribution patterns, in addition to previous responsibilities of reporting losses and theft.
In her letter, Aglukkaq also said there could be further federal intervention, if provincial and territorial actions prove insufficient to control prescription and dispensing practices for addictive drugs.
But these changes and her comments merely address the potential problems for abuse after they surface and do nothing to prevent or slow them down at the outset.
Aglukkaq is correct when she says the current laws don’t permit her to withhold approval for a drug because it could be misused. But that doesn’t mean she should sit on her hands and do nothing. As the federal minister, she does have options available to her.
She could change the legal and regulatory framework that permits highly addictive drugs on the market. She could delay approvals of generic brands by amending Canada’s Food and Drug Act.
And she could also require that Purdue warn doctors and the public of the potential for abuse of OxyNEO.
This is a national drug problem and it calls for a national solution — or at the very least, national restrictions.
For the federal health minister to absolve herself and her government of responsibility in this matter, and toss it back to the provinces and the doctors who prescribe the drug, is shameful.
If this is her defining moment, she has failed miserably.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 26, 2012