Watch John Oliver Rail on Big Pharma for Enabling Opioid Addiction

'Last Week Tonight' host says 2.6 million Americans are addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin

John Oliver takes aim at Big Pharma for opioid addiction on the latest 'Last Week Tonight'

John Oliver took on America's massive opioid addiction on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. In the United States, 30,000 deaths a year are caused by heroin and prescription painkillers abuse, according to the Oregon Medical Association. Oliver pointed to Big Pharma greed, over-prescription and false advertising for the epidemic.  

Oliver said, decades ago American doctors grappled with "opiophobia," a resistance to prescribing opiate painkillers out of fear of patient addiction. ("[It's] not to be confused with 'Oprah-phobia,' which is the irrational fear of screaming talk show hosts giving you a free sedan," Oliver cracked.) But with the advent of drugs like OxyContin, the pharmaceutical industry expanded painkiller marketing away from end-of-life treatment to more common ailments like back pain.

Companies like Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin, tried to reassure patients the drugs are rarely addictive. But by 2000, doctors were writing nearly six million OxyContin prescriptions per year. OxyContin sales eclipsed Viagra sales. (In 2007, Purdue paid $634 million in fines for misleading marketing.)

Oliver says an estimated 75 percent of opioid addicts start with prescription drugs like OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin before turning to heroin because of its cheaper price and augmented effects. But since many Americans depend on prescribed painkillers, it's impossible to eliminate them altogether.

"There is not one simple answer here," he said. "Not all opioid addicts will respond to the same treatments, 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 angry at the drug companies like Purdue, whose promise of cheap, quick, easy pain solutions helped put us in this fucking mess."