John Oliver Exposes Pharmaceutical Marketing

John Oliver and Last Week Tonight returned on HBO last weekend with a biting expose of the pharmaceutical industry (video above). Like Jon Stewart, Oliver’s comedy version of the news is far more revealing than what is seen on most actual news reports. Last Week Tonight also has the advantage of spending more time on a single story than either Jon Stewart or actual news shows.

Oliver pointed how how Americans are addicted to prescription drugs, spending almost $330 billion on them. He suggested that Walter White of Breaking Bad could have made a lot more money cooking up drugs for rheumatoid arthritis instead of meth. He lampooned the efforts of pharmaceutical companies to influence the prescribing habits of physicians, describing their ethics with this comparison:  “Drug companies are a bit like high school boyfriends; they are much more concerned with getting inside you than being effective once they are in there.”

Oliver concluded with a warning about doctors who take large amounts of money from the pharmaceutical industry with a mock public service commercial, Ask Your Doctor:

Here’s how it works. Money combines with the cash receptors in your doctor’s wallet to create fast-acting financial relief, so your doctor can rest easy and enjoy life.

Common side effects of doctors taking money may include chronic overprescription, unusually heavy cash flow, dependency on free samples, inflammation of confidence, affluenza and an increased tendency to suggest off-label prescriptions, which in turn can cause heart attack, stroke, loss of feeling in arms and legs, seizures, blurred vision, grinding of the teeth, temporary deafness, total blindness, numbness, sudden bursts of rage, angry erections lasting over 17 hours, and death.

Ask your doctor today if he’s taking pharmaceutical company money. Then ask your doctor what the money is for. Ask your doctor if he’s taken any money from the companies that make the drugs he’s just prescribed for you. Then ask yourself if you’re satisfied with that answer.

The story was quite accurate. If this was a documentary as opposed to a comedy show my only complaint is that it concentrates on one side of the story in portraying doctors who take money and are susceptible to pharmaceutical sales pitches. Many doctors actually are quite aware of the problem and many do not take any meaningful amount of money from pharmaceutical companies.

For example, Oliver quoted a drug rep as being disturbed when a doctor asked her for advice on treating a patient as she is just a poli-sci major. I often feel the opposite, when pharmaceutical reps act as if they are qualified to give me advice (invariably involving greater use of their drug), knowing how little pharmaceutical or medical background most of them have. While I do accept samples in order to help out patients, which requires me to have some contact with drug reps, I am certainly not going to consider anything they say to be anything other than advertising. One time I even had a drug rep run out of my office crying when I didn’t play long with her sales pitch. We also have not been too welcoming to the rare drug rep who attempts to get back into our sample room in order to put his drugs in front and hide the samples form the competition.

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