John Oliver Reveals The Origins Of America's Opioid Epidemic

By now, you're probably heard that the United States is caught in an unprecedented drug crisis.

"America is facing an epidemic of addiction to opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers," John Oliver said on the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight. "As of 2015, an estimated 2.6 million Americans were addicted to them. And they're now involved in almost 30,000 overdose deaths a year in the U.S."

And the cause isn't softer drugs like marijuana, as has often been suggested. For years, many politicians and anti-cannabis advocates blamed addiction on gateway drugs like marijuana, which supposedly lead users to abuse harder substances like heroin. The debunked theory even came up during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. But U.S. Attorney  Attorney General Loretta Lynch set the record straight last month.

“It isn’t so much that marijuana is the step right before using prescription drugs or opioids," Lynch said. "It is true that if you tend to experiment with a lot of things in life, you may be inclined to experiment with drugs, as well. But it’s not like we’re seeing that marijuana as a specific gateway.”

She added that addiction often begins at home. "In so many cases, it isn't trafficking rings that introduce a person to opioids. It's the household medicine cabinet. That's the source."    

So how did the crisis get to this point? Oliver says the epidemic started with aggressive marketing campaigns rife with misinformation from pharmaceutical companies. In the 1990s, companies like Purdue Pharma - developers of oxycontin - felt that doctors had "opiophobia," an unwillingness to prescribe painkillers to patients because of fears of addiction.

So pharma companies launched marketing campaigns that contained some misleading information. One of the most damaging tactics was to persuade doctors to expand opioid treatment beyond treatments for severe pain, according to Oliver.  

"[T]he pharmaceutical industry...started amplifying the message that opioids should not just be used for acute pain - like that from cancer or surgery - but for all sorts of pain. Like arthritis and back aches. Which makes sense as a motive coming from the pharma industry. End-of-life pain care is a narrow business. It's hard to make a lot of money on a product that's exclusively marketed to people who are close to death."

And to expand the market, they used dubious claims to downplay the risks of opioid use. The worst claim of all was that less than one percent of opioid users become addicted.

"I know it may seem like they're pulling that number out of their ass," Oliver said. "But they actually pulled it out of the 'letters to the editor' section of the New England Journal of Medicine....That paragraph is the whole thing. It wasn't peer reviewed. And it was only about short-term opioid use in hospitals. But it became the main source for that one percent claim."

And buying that misinformation has cost thousands of lives. Check out the clip below to hear some personal stories behind the epidemic's statistics.

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