When comedian John Oliver took pharma companies to task on his HBO show Sunday for their marketing of powerful narcotic painkillers, he pulled out a prop to drive home his point: a stuffed gorilla outfitted with a blue OxyContin T-shirt that was described as among the “stuffed plush toys” the company gave to health care practitioners.
Oliver made a serious case for drug manufacturers’ complicity in creating the current epidemic of opioid abuse on his show, “Last Week Tonight,” but he drew some of the biggest laughs as he highlighted promotional items, such as an OxyContin fishing hat and a swing music CD, handed out by its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, in the early days of the drug’s history.
“For Purdue,” Oliver joked of the gorilla, “this is the perfect choice of mascot because much like a gorilla, OxyContin might seem appealing, but if you are not careful it will tear your (expletive) life apart.”
STAT previously reported how sales reps working for Abbott Laboratories won over a reluctant doctor by delivering a box full of doughnuts and snack cakes spelling out OxyContin.
After that, we heard from readers about their own experiences being wooed by sales reps for opioid drugs and the gifts they carted into doctor offices. From readers and our own research, here are some of our favorites:
- A sun-blocking cardboard shade for car windshields. The front features a large OxyContin logo in blue, with the slogan, “The longest-lasting oxycodone ever.” It also says in smaller type: “Warning — May be habit forming.” The reverse side of the sun blocker carries a different message in red lettering: “NEED HELP PLEASE CALL POLICE.”
- A coffee mug with the OxyContin logo and the words, “The One to Start With.” According to an owner of one of the mugs, the words change to “The One to Stay With” when a hot liquid is poured into the cup. Not to be outdone, there is a Percocet coffee mug with “Pain” in large letters that changes to “Relief” when coffee is added.
- This is an OxyContine-branded Swiss Army-like contraption on steroids. It is a bottle opener, wrench, scissor, knife, and screwdriver.
- The Vicodin fanny pack. A seller of this collectible notes, “these were offered to doctors and most were probably given to their kids.”
- Pens, pens, and more pens. Doctors just can’t seem to get enough pens, and the makers of painkillers were more than happy to provide them. Click here to see a collection of pens from six different narcotic drug makers.
It is important to note that Purdue and many other manufacturers voluntarily adopted new guidelines more than a decade ago that do away with these kinds of promotional gimmicks. The marketing techniques were harshly criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a 2003 report, which noted Purdue was breaking new ground in the way in which tightly-regulated narcotic painkillers were promoted.