John Oliver Laments Shady Drug Company Marketing Ethics

Host explores "off-label" drug pushing, "thought leaders" in hilarious 'Last Week Tonight' segment

Pharmaceutical companies spend billions marketing their drugs to physicians, and that process results in assorted ethical dilemmas. In a hilarious and shocking Last Week Tonight report from Sunday's Season Two premiere, host John Oliver prescribes a closer look at these troubling truths.

"Prescription drugs: the only ovals that can bring people in the Seattle area joy anymore," Oliver says, opening the segment with a timely Super Bowl reference. He then shifts the tone by cutting to a series of sobering news pieces reporting that 70% of Americans regularly took at least one prescription drug in 2011 – and that $329.2 billion (or roughly $1,000 per person) was spent on those medications in 2013. "Walter White could have made more money cooking up rheumatoid arthritis medication," Oliver cracks. 

But, as the host observes, the drug companies themselves wield a surprising amount of influence in pumping out the pills, spending an "estimated $24 billion marketing directly to doctors." Oliver compares the companies to "high school boyfriends," joking that they're "much more concerned with being inside you than being effective once you're in there."

Oliver riffs about how pharmaceutical sales reps use sex appeal and free food to peddle drugs, but "the problem comes if those reps don't understand the effects of the drugs they're pushing." Some companies take the "off-label" approach, "pushing doctors to push pills for non-FDA uses." Other times, doctors are paid to be "thought leaders," pitching drugs to other doctors over dinner. 

It's a messy, overwhelming issue for a lot of the American public, but Oliver notes one intriguing development: the recently established federal website OpenPaymentsData.CMS.gov, which enables average citizens a chance to search for perks given to doctors by pharmaceutical companies.

The segment ends with a lighthearted pre-filmed bit, with "Pharmaceutical Money" pushed as a prescription drug. The side effects, naturally, include "chronic overprescription," "unusually heavy cash flow" and "death."