Let's not forget the patients in the prescription drug debate
For weeks now, Ontario's Minister of Health, Deb Matthews, has been trading barbs with federal Health Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, over whether or not she should intervene in Health Canada's decision to approve the generic version of the painkiller oxycodone.
As this debate plays out and the attention starts to focus on the intergovernmental conflict instead of the important public health debate, we must not lose sight of three simple facts: 1) Canada has a serious problem with abuse of prescription pain medication; 2) addiction is a scientifically confirmed chronic medical condition; and 3) governments, both provincial and federal, have the power to address this problem in a meaningful way.
As a starting point, it's important to understand the extent of Canada's use of prescription painkillers. People are often shocked when they hear that an estimated over 200,000 Canadians (roughly the population of the city of Regina) are addicted to drugs like OxyContin. Not only that, but Canada is also the world's second highest per capita consumers of opioids (the class of drugs to which OxyContin belongs).
Opioid dependency is often incorrectly viewed as a volunteer lifestyle choice, when in fact it is a chronic medical condition that occurs because of chemical reactions in the brain. Simply put, with prolonged use of opioids, severe withdrawal symptoms can make it extremely difficult to stop. This is true for the rich and the poor, men and women, the professional and the stay-at-home parent.
But the big question remains: what to do about it? According to a new national survey released by Leger Marketing, the overwhelming majority of Canadians feel governments should treat opioid addiction as a public health concern (90 per cent) rather than a criminal justice issue (10 per cent). In this spirit, all levels of government must work together, along with patient groups, physicians, and law enforcement, to attack opioid addiction from all sides.
This means improving screening measures to help people at risk of addiction to avoid being prescribed prescription painkillers in the first place. From a law enforcement perspective, it means focusing criminal justice efforts on reducing illegal supply of prescription pain killers, rather than on prosecuting addicts for minor possession.
Finally, when it comes to treatment, it means giving patients easier access to treatment; family physicians playing a bigger role in managing opioid dependent patients; and family doctors having access to ongoing education, support and mentoring to effectively treat the growing number of opioid dependent patients.
Banning generic Oxycodone is not enough to solve this problem; there is much more to be done. We must not forget this as Minister Aglukkaq puts forward her case for why she cannot intervene in her Ministry's independent review process of generic oxycodone, and as Minister Matthews puts forward her reasons for why the federal government must.