OxyContin pills at Turner Drugs in London, Ontario on Feb. 24, 2012.
Credits: DEREK RUTTAN/ The London Free Press /QMI AGENCY
OTTAWA -- The federal government admits doctors have over-prescribed OxyContin -- known as hillbilly heroine on the street -- but officials believe a growing prescription abuse crisis isn't caused by "just one pill."
"We think that this is an issue that governments can work together to tackle but we would see it as one of prescription drug abuse in general," said Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. "OxyContin is approved by Health Canada for a very small number of actual purposes. If someone gets a 30-day supply to deal with a pulled wisdom tooth, that is not ... the intended use of the drug."
Health Canada is in the midst of reviewing applications from companies who want to produce generic versions of OxyContin once Purdue Pharma's patent on the drug expires on Nov. 25.
Last March, Purdue pulled OxyContin from the Canadian market to unroll the new drug, OxyNEO. The manufacturer said it wanted to put forward the new formula because it was designed to be more abuse-proof, but Purdue did not have to prove this claim before the drug was approved for market.
Health Canada regulates opioid pain medications under the federal Food and Drugs Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Several police groups, health-advocacy organizations and the governments of Ontario and P.E.I. strongly oppose generic versions of OxyContin in Canada because they believe the drug is contributing to a nationwide problem.
In a letter to Aglukkaq, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews strongly urged the feds to bar market authorization for generic versions of Oxy.
Outhouse says the department is considering scientific variables before it approves or rejects generics, but he insists this decision will be made by Health Canada scientists, and not politicians.
Dr. David Juurlink, an internist and head of the clinical pharmacology and toxicology division at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, says the feds need to play a much more active role in combating the over-prescription of opioids.
Juurlink believes doctor education would be one step forward.
"When the problem of over-prescribing is raised, (it) is immediately construed as some sort of attack on pain management principles," he said. "There is no good data to suggest we should be using opioids the way we are."
Juurlink has criticized Health Canada for failing to put together national statistics on prescription pills to identify drug hot spots and mortality information.