John Oliver Breaks Down Opioid Addiction on Last Week Tonight

The HBO host's latest segment hits close to home.

America’s opioid addiction was front and center on Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The HBO series took a closer look at what started the crisis and how it’s affecting people in this country today. According to Oliver’s research, nearly 2.6 million Americans are addicted to opioids while more than 30,000 people die from overdoses each year. Almost 75 percent of heroin addicts are also former prescription opioid users, which is due to the drugs being “chemical cousins.”

The subject should hit close to home for Massachusetts residents, as 1,379 people in the state died last year from opioid overdoses, an 8 percent increase from 2014. Local lawmakers recently introduced a new bill to help fight the epidemic in the Bay State.

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

While opioids are currently at the center of a health crisis, these types of painkillers weren’t always so prevalent, as doctors used to fear prescribing them over concerns of addiction. The Last Week Tonight host stated that many physicians had “Opiophobia,” which shouldn’t be confused with Oprah-phobia, “the irrational fear of screaming talk show hosts giving you a brand new Pontiac sedan.”

Oliver went on to call out Purdue Pharma, the New England-based company that tried to dispel claims of opioid addiction while aggressively marketing OxyContin to doctors following its release in 1996.

Purdue used a number of tactics to convince people that OxyContin is a safe form of treatment, including using a promotional video featuring patients who got their lives back by using the drug. It turns out that two of the seven subjects featured died as active opioid abusers.

The company claimed in another video that less than 1 percent of users became addicted. However, that number was based on a paragraph-long letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine that wasn’t peer reviewed and only dealt with short-term use in hospitals.

As the years went on, Purdue continued to deny that the drug was additive, saying that many of the patients were suffering from a “pseudo-addiction,” which one doctor in the segment described as “relief seeking behavior mistaken as drug addiction.”

“That’s like Chipotle going, ‘Have you heard of this fascinating new thing called pseudo-diarrhea?'” Oliver joked. “It looks a lot like diarrhea, but it’s not diarrhea, and the cure may actually be more tacos.”

The company was forced to pay a fine of more than $600 million in 2007 due to its misleading marketing of OxyCotin.

Check out the full segment in the video above.