John Oliver’s latest episode of Last Week Tonight takes on the pharmaceutical companies that laid the foundation for today’s opioid overdose epidemic, which claimed the lives of nearly 30,000 Americans in 2014.
Oliver points out that until the 1990s, doctors were wary of prescribing opioids to treat pain because of lingering concerns about their addictive qualities. But prescribing shot up in the late ’90s, largely due to a massive marketing campaign launched by Purdue Pharma, which introduced OxyContin in 1995. Doctors were assured that prescribing OxyContin for chronic pain was safe, and that dependence on the drugs was merely “pseudo-addiction.” (Oliver: “That is like Chipotle saying, ‘Have you hard of this fascinating new thing called pseudo-diarrhea?…The cure may actually be more tacos!'”)
In addition to educational materials, doctors were offered all sorts of OxyContin swag, from swing music CDs to fishing caps. Pulling out a plush OxyContin stuffed toy guerrilla, Oliver says, “This is the perfect choice of mascot, because much like a guerilla, OxyContin might seem appealing, but if you’re not careful, it will tear your fucking life apart.”
Curbing the epidemic will be a massive lift, involving prescribing less painkillers and providing resources for those already addicted. “It won’t be cheap, it won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy,” says Oliver. “And it is hard not to be angry at the drug companies like Purdue whose promises of cheap, quick, easy pain solutions helped put us in this fucking mess.”