John Oliver on Why It's Time to Start Paying Attention to America's Opioid Problem

John Oliver
"There is no one, simple answer here," says John Oliver. "Not all opioid addicts will respond to the same treatments, and not all people in pain will find relief in alternative therapies." Last Week Tonight

Opioid addiction is a major problem in America. An estimated 2.6 million people were dependent on them in 2015. There are almost 30,000 overdoses a year. In September, 28 people overdosed in a five-hour span...just in Huntington, West Virginia. What's to blame? Prescription painkillers are a big part of the problem: Around 75 percent of heroin users start with them before moving onto the hard stuff. Also deserving blame is the pharmaceutical industry, which has pushed doctors to prescribe more of the drugs. On Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver broke down exactly how we got to this point with opiods, and why it's time to start paying attention to the drugs that are tearing apart the lives of so many Americans.

Around 250 million opioid prescriptions are now written in America every year, but their use wasn't always so widespread: In the early '90s, doctors were hesitant to prescribe opioids; they were mostly reserved for patients with terminal illnesses. This started changing after U.S. Health Secretary Louis Sullivan in 1992 gave a speech about how surgery patients were suffering needlessly, and cautioned medical professionals about subscribing to the "myths" surrounding opioids.

Last Week Tonight
Last Week Tonight

The problem is that the "myth" about how easy it is to become addicted to opioids is, of course, not a myth at all. Sullivan's encouragement may have loosened up prescription pads, though, and the biggest development in the explosive growth of prescription painkillers came in 1996, when the pharmaceutical company Purdue developed a drug called OxyContin and began pushing it aggressively. By 2000, doctors were writing 6 million OxyContin prescriptions a year. As the drug's prevalence grew, so did concerns over its addictiveness. Purdue claimed that less than 1 percent of OxyContin users became addicted, a statistic it pulled from a letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine. The company also kept doctors on its payroll to spread theories about how addicts weren't really addicted, they were only "pseudo-addicted," which was described in a highlighted clip as "relief-seeking behavior disguised as drug addiction." OK.

In 2007, Purdue was forced to pay $634 million in fines for lying to the public. Other pharmaceutical companies were held financially responsible, as well. But the damage had been done.

What can be done now? Part of the reason opioids prescriptions are still so widespread is that they are a quick fix. There are alternative treatments to pain, such as physical therapy and mindfullness medication, but these aren't widely available, especially in rural areas. "There is no one, simple answer here," says Oliver. "Not all opioid addicts will respond to the same treatments, and not all people in pain will find relief in 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."