All Canadians should have access to free prescription drug coverage, according to opposition New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, and he is calling on the nation’s business community to help him achieve this.

Each year, businesses in Canada currently spend around C$10 billion (about $9.4 billion) for prescription drug coverage and the government spends around C$9 billion, so it is in everyone’s best interests to ensure that coverage is universal and the cost of drugs reduced, Mr Layton has told a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Ontario.

Canadians currently spend more on drugs than they do on doctors, he said, adding that he has been approached by young families who tell him they have to choose between their mortgage payments and paying for their prescription medications. Moreover, the Pharmacists Association of Canada says that people have to walk away from pharmacy counters and the medications they have been prescribed because they cannot afford it, he added.

With consumers and provincial leaders onside and the support of business, Mr Layton said his campaign for universal drug coverage will be “unstoppable".

A few weeks earlier, he had sought the support of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for his campaign. Speaking at the union’s convention in British Columbia, he said that one in five Canadians are underinsured for high drug costs while a “staggering” 3.5 million are without any drug coverage at all.

“Access to prescription drugs depends more on where you live and how much money you have than it does on need - in British Columbia average households are paying C$314 a year [while] in Prince Edward Island they pay $495,” he said, adding: “this is wrong and it is time it changed.”

Canada and the USA are the only developed countries in the world without a national public drug plan and “while everyday Canadians are paying sky-high prices, the pharmaceutical companies are making sky-high profits,” he said.

Mr Layton called on the CUPE members to support measures to curb drug costs including action on “excessive” patent protection, better enforcement of the ban on direct-to-consumer advertising, improved regulation of “ask-your-doctor” ads and capitalising on the collective purchasing power of Canada’s provinces, territories and the federal government to negotiate better prices for drugs. By Lynne Taylor