Ada Giuduce-Tompson, vice-president of the Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids, lost her 29-year-old son eight years ago after he was prescribed the popular painkiller hydromorphone by his doctor. Her only child went to bed one night and never woke up.
In the 14 months prior to his death, Giuduce-Tompson later learned her son had been prescribed thousands of pills by his doctor following his initial prescription.
"If I had been provided with accurate information about Percocet, I would not have filled my son's first prescription and I would not be here today," Giuduce-Tompson, her voice wavering, told the health committee meeting.
"I had no idea that legally prescribed drugs — those coming from a physician, dispensed by a pharmacist and approved by Health Canada — are as dangerous as such illicit drugs as cocaine, heroin or crystal meth."
Earlier this year, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the National Advisory Council on Prescription Drug Misuse released a 10-year national strategy called First Do No Harm: Responding to Canada's Prescription Drug Crisis.
The report noted Canada has the second-highest level of prescription opioid use globally.
Several of the experts testifying at Wednesday's health committee hearing, aimed at tackling the problem, bemoaned the lack of data in Canada that would help them target those most at risk of abusing prescription painkillers. The U.S., they said, is leaps and bounds ahead of Canada in terms of such data.
They called for a nationwide prescription-monitoring program that would help them get a better grasp on the scope of the problem in Canada and how to combat it, but at least one witness noted privacy issues were interfering with those efforts.
Several experts also called for greater use of naloxone, a chemical compound that reverses the effects of opioids and can stop an overdose in its tracks.
Giuduce-Tompson, however, said government needs to take action now to stop dangerous opioids from getting the green light in the first place. Health Canada should insist on long-term clinical trials for opioids, she said, and drug companies should be prevented from inaccurately marketing their opioids as safe in order to "maximize sales."
"The minister of health should be empowered to reject the approval of a new drug if there is high potential for it to be misused or abused," she said. "Regulators need to stop listening to people who have a vested interest in the sale of opioids."
The Conservative government has been on the hot seat for Health Canada's recent approval of two generic, addictive formulations of oxycodone manufactured by Ranbaxy, an Indian drugmaker.
The green light for the drugs came despite suggestions from Health Minister Rona Ambrose earlier this fall that the Conservative government was weighing pleas from the United States to follow its lead in outlawing oxycodone. Only tamper-resistant formulations of the drug are available in the U.S., making it less susceptible to abuse.
The OK for Ranbaxy also raised questions about Health Canada's approval process. Drug approval is based on clinical trials performed by the pharmaceutical companies themselves, with no independent review.
Health Canada, however, says it "rigorously" assesses the safety and efficacy of all drugs before deciding whether to approve them, with a primary focus on the needs and safety of patients.
One expert told the hearing on Wednesday that outlawing addictive formulations of oxycodone, as the U.S. has done, isn't a perfect solution since it could drive people to harder street drugs.
"That's one strategy," said Beth Sproule, a clinical scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
"It doesn't solve the problem, because once you make it unavailable or less attractive, people may go to something else, but it's the right direction for sure ... it's not the whole solution."