A prescription narcotic popular among street drug users in Canada may soon get a brand makeover.
Health Canada has asked drugmaker Teva if it’s considering changing the controversial branding on its oxycodone medication, following a Star investigation into the “TEC” marking engraved on each pill.
The letters represent branding for a company that hasn’t existed in nearly 20 years. The TEC name is among the most desired brands of prescription opioids on the streets, the Star found.
“Health Canada officials are concerned about the links being made between these markings and illicit use. Officials at the regulator have reached out to the company to determine whether they are considering making changes,” Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in a statement.
It’s up to the company alone to change the markings on the pills. Health Canada can force a medication to be modified only if there is a safety or quality problem.
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TECs are popular among young people and casual users because its lower dosage of oxycodone means a more manageable high. For many people, these pills are their first taste of opioids.
The drug company has said it did not know about the marking’s popularity with illicit users until it was contacted by the Star with the results of its investigation. Teva said it is now consulting with police and “community stakeholders” to see just what kind of brand recognition TEC has on the streets.
“We are securing valid feedback from these same experts to determine whether there is, in fact, value in changing the product’s trade dress,” a Teva spokesperson said.
Teva would not say what it discussed with Health Canada, calling it confidential.
Harm reduction advocates are concerned the outdated TEC branding is still being used only because of the prescription pill’s popularity on the streets — a charge the company says it not true.
The TEC pills are officially known as Oxycocet and are a generic version of Percocet. They are a blend of oxycodone and Tylenol.
The pills make their way from pharmacies to the streets in different ways, from fake prescriptions to robberies to patients selling their medication.
Once there, a single TEC pill can fetch anywhere from $ 5 to $ 20 — and probably sells a lot easier than the same drug with different markings, several drug users and harm-reduction advocates told the Star.
TECs used to be made by a Montreal-based drug firm called TechniLab Pharma. That company was purchased in 2000 by Ratiopharm, which soon started changing the markings on its newly acquired products to say “rph,” according to a source who worked there at the time.
But the oxycodone pills were never changed.
Teva purchased Ratiopharm in 2010 and the pills continued to have the TEC branding.
The federal government is just “grasping at low hanging fruit” by asking the company only to consider changing the name, said Amy Graves, founder of the non-profit Get Prescription Drugs off the Street.
“I think there should be an investigation into what Teva’s motivation was to keep the TEC marking,” she said.
“I think that’s the bigger question — not so much the imprint itself, but the motivation behind why that imprint was there for so long.”
Graves also warned that just changing the pill’s markings in isolation could cause unintended consequences.
Police in Canada have already seized pills with the TEC branding that actually contained fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
By simply changing the branding without a meaningful public awareness campaign, there may be illicit users “still seeking out the TEC marking and getting a bootleg version instead, which can have deadly consequences,” Graves said.
In Ontario, TECs are the most commonly dispensed generic form of oxycodone covered by the public drug plan, according to Ontario Drug Benefit Program data.
Since 2012, the province has paid more than $ 50 million covering the cost of pills with that marking. The Star was unable to obtain similar data for those prescriptions covered under private health plans.
A recent Star investigation obtained an email chain showing a Teva manager offering to pay an Ontario pharmacy group to stock its prescription medications, including TECs.
In response to the Star’s findings, Ontario’s health minister said he takes the allegations of “illegal” rebate payments seriously and ordered the government to investigate. A Teva spokesperson said the company follows Ontario’s laws and will co-operate with the province’s probe.