Quebec is proposing new legal changes to allow it to more easily hold opioid manufacturers and distributors accountable for health-care costs tied to the opioid crisis.
A bill introduced at the National Assembly on Thursday would allow the province to participate in a British-Columbia-led class action against those manufacturers and distributors.
Social Services Minister Lionel Carmant, who introduced the bill, called it “a significant statement against the imputability of all those who have taken part in the opioid crisis.”
“They misled the population here and all over the world about the significance and impact of using opioids,” said Carmant.
The B.C. lawsuit, filed in 2018, alleges that more than 40 opioid manufacturers and distributors misled and deceived patients to sell painkillers that ended up inundating the market and contributing to the opioid crisis.
The lawsuit seeks approximately $85 million in compensation, but it is unusual because it is a class action filed by a provincial government on behalf of all the provincial and territorial governments in Canada and the federal government.
The lawsuit is still in its early stages and has not yet been approved by the B.C. Supreme Court. Hearings to that effect are set to begin on Nov. 27.
The Quebec bill, known as Bill 36, carries specific language that would allow the Quebec government to participate in class-action lawsuits for the purpose of recovering “opioid-related health-care costs.”
The bill also modifies the ordinary rules of civil liability to make statistical information admissible as evidence — to show, for example, the extent of the opioid crisis and its connection to opioid manufacturers using statistics — and not require the province to identify each of the individual victims.
The opioid crisis has steadily worsened in Quebec over the past decade. The province attributed 319 deaths to opioid overdoses in 2020 compared to 263 in 2016.
From July 2022 to June 2023 there were 525 suspected deaths attributable to overdoses (opioids or otherwise) in Quebec.
Carmant said the opioid crisis has hit hard in Quebec and in Montreal, in part due to the actions of the companies named in the B.C. lawsuit who marketed drugs intended for severe pain to patients with “mid- to low-grade pain, like back aches.”
Jessica Turmel, a counselor and instructor at the Groupe de recherche et d’intervention psychosociale, an organization that offers drug analysis to users, likened the overprescribing of pharmaceutical opioids to the advertising of cigarettes for therapeutic means in the 1930s or the prescription of cocaine for toothaches in the late 1800s.
“These are stories that repeat themselves,” she said. “These medications were prescribed as pharmaceuticals and we looked at them as if there was no problem. … These are not medications that should be prescribed over a long period of time because a dependency can develop.”
A piece of the puzzle
The opposition Québec Solidaire said that while it supports Quebec joining the B.C. court case, it thinks more could be done in Quebec to address the growing opioid problem.
“This crisis is linked to the housing crisis, homelessness, mental illness and access to adequate care,” said Manon Massé, one of QS’s spokespersons.
“The government needs to do more,” she said. “Overdoses are just the tip of the iceberg of growing social and health-care inequalities.”