John Oliver Tackles The Opioid Crisis on ‘Last Week Tonight’

By Keri Blakinger 10/25/16

“It is hard not to be angry at the drug companies like Purdue whose promise of cheap, quick and easy pain solutions helped put us in this f--king mess.”

John Oliver Tackles The Opioid Crisis on ‘Last Week Tonight’
Photo: YouTube

At the risk of sounding “like a middle school health teacher,” comedian John Oliver tackled the origins of the current opioid epidemic on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight.

The British comic launched into his breakneck-paced history of the opioid crisis by playing a kitschy anti-drug commercial followed by a bizarre anecdote demonstrating the ubiquity of opiates today. 

The drugs are so common that it’s not just humans who are affected, he explained—sometimes even animals overdose. 

Last month, a golden retriever in Colorado nearly died after she ate one of several bags of heroin tossed over the fence of a doggy daycare center in a drug-drenched part of Denver. 

“Honestly, rampant heroin abuse near a doggy daycare center is the first case that McGruff the Crime Dog is actually qualified to solve,” Oliver quipped. 

But canine drug use is just a symptom of a nationwide problem, the HBO host explained. With nearly 30,000 overdose deaths every year, opioids are everywhere from big cities to small towns—a fact that GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump took note of during a recent appearance in New England.

“They said the biggest single problem they have up here is heroin,” Trump told the rally crowd. “And I said how does heroin work with these beautiful lakes and trees? It doesn’t.”

“Yeah, it does, though, it does,” Oliver responded rhetorically. “Heroin works basically everywhere because it’s heroin, it’s not a cell phone. Heroin has full coverage.” 

But just how did it get that “full coverage”? Oliver traces it back to painkiller prescriptions—which is how 75% of heroin users enter into the world of drug addiction. 

“This is happening everywhere. The odds are right now you probably know someone who is struggling or has died from an opioid addiction,” the comic said.

Although part of the problem may stem from doctors’ readiness to prescribe, that script-happy style wasn’t always the norm. 

Currently, there are around 250 million opioid prescriptions written every year in America—but back in the '90s, doctors were so wary of prescribing them that even people with Stage IV cancer couldn’t get the powerful painkillers. 

In response to a medical community content to under-prescribe, advocates and pharmaceutical companies embarked on an awareness campaign that proved to be perhaps too effective. 

One of the loudest pro-painkiller lobbyists was Purdue Pharma, the company that released OxyContin in 1996.

After the drug launched, Purdue aggressively marketed the pill, even using silly swag including everything from hats to stuffed animals—like a gorilla wearing an OxyContin branded shirt. 

“Purdue,” Oliver said, “this is the perfect choice of mascots because—much like a gorilla—OxyContin might seem appealing, but if you aren’t careful it will tear your fucking life apart.”

But the company sought to minimize that possibility in some of its promotional videos. One piece claimed that less than 1% of opioid users became addicted—an improbable statistic pulled out of a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine

Another promo video featured a pro-pill doctor explaining the existence of something he dubbed “pseudo-addiction,” which is “when a patient is looking like a drug addict because they’re seeking pain relief.”

Those and other pieces of Purdue propaganda worked so well that by 2000, nearly six million OxyContin scripts were written every year. 

“At a certain point,” Oliver said, “the question has to be less, ‘What did we do wrong?’ and more, ‘What do we do now?’”

For some patients, opioid painkillers are legitimately necessary. But for others, those pills can be the first step down the path toward addiction. 

This year, the CDC made an effort to address the issue by putting out voluntary guidelines recommending non-opioid alternatives when possible. But not all areas of the country have access to alternative pain treatments like physical therapy or mindfulness meditation. 

“We cannot just work to prevent future addicts. We’re going to need to do more to help the millions that already exist,” Oliver said, pointing to the need for more investments in treatment programs and better access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone. 

“There is no one simple answer here,” he said. “Not all opioid addicts will respond to the same treatment and not all people in pain will find relief from alternative therapies. This is going to take a massive effort and a significant investment. It won’t be cheap, it won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy.”

“And it is hard not to be angry at the drug companies like Purdue whose promise of cheap, quick and easy pain solutions helped put us in this fucking mess.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.