The politics of a painkiller – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (December 14, 2012)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Leona Aglukkaq has got politics down pat. The federal Health Minister recently approved generic versions of the highly-addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin for sale in Canada. The patent for OxyContin — which is the market name for time-released oxycodone tablets — expired and, in the interest of private-sector initiative, the government opened the door for other companies to step in with their own, no-name versions.

That’s great for the companies; oxycodone painkillers are huge sellers. It’s also good for people in need of those drugs, as well as health care budgets. The generics are much cheaper than the name brand versions and their painkilling abilities are effective.

The issue, though, is one that affects everyone else. Oxycodone is a fiercely addictive painkiller and the introduction of generic versions will cost society far too much to go ahead.

The problem is, those struggling with an oxy addiction — and there are many — pass their struggle on to others. Drug stores are being held up to the point where many pharmacy owners are refusing to stock generic oxy. Convenience stores, homes and vehicles are robbed and whatever taken is quickly flipped to pay for the next pill. Police are expending resources to break up trafficking rings, seizing enormous quantities of the pills destined for remote First Nations where they can fetch hundreds of dollars, depending on the dosage.

Generics are a result of a free market. The patent is up and other companies can now make money manufacturing oxy. Aglukkaq doesn’t want to tamper with that — she’s said as much, indicating that politicians shouldn’t pick and choose which drugs are approved.

But her department is washing its hands of any real responsibility for more oxy pills becoming available. Health Canada only approved the generics. How they’re regulated and otherwise dealt with falls squarely on provincial shoulders.
So, on the one hand, Aglukkaq has to keep the market moving. On the other hand, she’s ensured that she has somewhere to point the finger of blame if things go wrong: the provinces. Talk to them, it’s their problem now.

The responsible thing to do is to first reverse the decision. Sometimes the government needs to act for the greater good. The market will adapt. At the very least, Aglukkaq needs to sit down with the provinces immediately and start discussing how the federal government can help them as they deal with the downsides of oxycodone addiction on their streets.

Addiction is not a game, and Aglukkaq should not be playing politics.