OTTAWA -- The federal government is refusing to interfere in the drug-approval process for the highly addictive generic form of OxyContin, saying the provinces have the wherewithal to do a lot more.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq wrote her provincial counterparts on Monday to reject their plea to delay or deny approval of the knock-off opioid painkiller -- a move that immediately provoked an outcry from Ontario, as well as some health experts.
Federal laws don't allow regulators to simply ban a drug just because some people abuse the medication, Aglukkaq told a news conference.
"The law does not permit approval to be withheld on the basis of misuse," she said, asking the public to also consider the needs of patients with chronic pain. Her refusal to get involved in the process opens the door for generic oxycodone to win approval in Canada after the patent for the brand-name OxyContin expires on Nov. 25.
That's despite a unanimous request from provincial health ministers to at least delay approval until regulators can examine how oxycodone is abused, and repeated demands from Ontario to completely ban the drug.
"I am profoundly disappointed in minister Aglukkaq's decision to ignore the threat to public safety posed by generic OxyContin and to allow it to enter the Canadian market," Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said in a statement.
While national figures are hard to come by, Matthews said OxyContin has led to a five-fold increase in oxycodone-related deaths. She said the social costs of allowing generic oxycodone would be about $500 million a year in Ontario alone.
Small communities and First Nations in particular have been wrestling for the past few years with widespread addictions related to oxy, which is trafficked on a secondary market. In some northern Ontario reserves, more than half the adult population is addicted to prescription drugs.
Alvin Fiddler, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, called the decision another unwelcome blow to aboriginal communities that are already suffering.
"With OxyContin clones on the market, it just means more drugs flow to the north," said Fiddler, whose group represents some 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario.
"While we appreciate the minister's distinction between science and politics, NAN First Nations are experiencing extreme levels of addiction and require extreme solutions."
-- The Canadian Press