John Oliver on Drug Marketing to Docs

John Oliver brings his explosive wit to bear on the pharmaceutical industry’s practice of marketing to doctors in this hilarious video.

According to Oliver, 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug. More than half take two, amounting to $4 billion dollars in prescriptions per year and total drug spending of over $330 billion dollars. That’s $1,000 per person in the U.S.

Oliver jokes that at that rate, Walter White could have made more money cooking up Rheumatoid Arthritis prescriptions than crystal meth.

The comedian goes on to say the sky-high spending on drug marketing shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s impossible to escape the television ads for prescription medications. He says just turning on the TV confronts viewers with an endless stream of sleep inducing moths and aging men getting physically aroused while varnishing chairs. He shows a clip of an ad for a medication that treats overactive bladders, featuring a young woman being pestered by a walking cartoon bladder. Oliver says what the woman really needs is a pill to stop her hallucinating anthropomorphic bladders.

Television ads are only one small part of pharma marketing. Drugs aren’t like other products because consumers need someone else’s permission to buy them. That’s why all drug ads end with the same catchy phrase: “Ask your doctor.”

Oliver says “ask your doctor” is a phrase you either hear in an ad or say to a coworker when he asks if the mole on his back looks cancerous.

john oliver drug company marketing doctors ads

John Oliver talks about drug company marketing: Ad for a walking bladder.

Drug companies, says Oliver, know that doctors hold all the real power in prescription drug business. That’s why, while the companies spend nearly $4 billion a year marketing to consumers, they spend an estimated $24 billion a year marketing to physicians. One analysis claimed that in 2013 nine of the top ten drug companies spent more on marketing than on research. Oliver says this makes prescription drugs something like high school boyfriends: more interested in getting inside you than in being effective once they’re there.

One drug rep whistleblower in the video said in his class of 21 pharma rep trainees, he was the only one with a science background. Oliver jokes that pharma reps are like cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Young, hot, and with absolutely no medical training. While most doctors will take that into consideration, the problem is that some don’t.

drug company doctors money pharmaceutical repOne former pharma rep said a physician sometimes showed her patient charts and asked for advice, though the rep was a political science major. Says Oliver, the only question political science majors are qualified to answer is, “Was it weird having to move back in with your parents after college?”

Some drug companies have crossed the line, pushing doctors to recommend medications for non FDA approved uses. One horrifying example involves AstraZeneca for pushing an anti-psychotic for uses from sleeplessness to depression and dementia. Oliver jokes that the companies can’t just give people potentially dangerous drugs and see what happens.

“You are a Fortune 500 company, not a white guy with dreadlocks at Burning Man,” Oliver says.

drug companies doctor money john oliver lawsuitsAstraZeneca denied wrongdoing but paid half a billion dollars to settle the lawsuit. The pharma giant is not alone. Johnson & Johnson settled a similar lawsuit for $2.2 billion. Eli Lilly paid $1.4 billion. Pfizer and a subsidiary paid a combined $2.3 billion. Glaxo Smith Kline paid a record $3 billion to settle accusations that it had pushed the antidepressant Wellbutrin as a weight loss and sexual dysfunction cure. One former rep said they even pushed it to doctors as “the happy horny skinny drug.” Oliver complains that this isn’t just irresponsible marketing but also copyright infringement. He says there’s only one happy horny skinny drug and that’s crystal meth.