Thursday, February 07, 2008

Artificial Heart Maker Goes Artificial Rowing

You've probably seen the Lipitor ads that include Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of an artificial heart, endorsing the drug and rowing off on a pristine lake. The NYTimes has an interesting piece this morning about the ads.

It turns out that it's not Dr. Jarvik doing the rowing in the ads that hock the world's largest-selling drug. From the Times:

The ads have depicted him, among other outdoorsy pursuits, rowing a one-man racing shell swiftly across a mountain lake. “When diet and exercise aren’t enough, adding Lipitor significantly lowers cholesterol,” Dr. Jarvik says in the ad.

Celebrity advertising endorsements are nothing new, of course. But the Lipitor campaign is a rare instance of a well-known doctor’s endorsing a drug in advertising — and it has helped rekindle a smoldering debate over whether it is appropriate to aim ads for prescription drugs directly at consumers.

A Congressional committee, concerned that the Lipitor ads could be misleading, has said it wants to interview Dr. Jarvik about his role as the drug’s pitchman.

Some of the questions may involve his credentials. Even though Dr. Jarvik holds a medical degree, for example, he is not a cardiologist and is not licensed to practice medicine. So what, critics ask, qualifies him to recommend Lipitor on television — even if, as he says in some of the ads, he takes the drug himself?

And, for that matter, what qualifies him to pose as a rowing enthusiast? As it turns out, Dr. Jarvik, 61, does not actually practice the sport. The ad agency hired a stunt double for the sculling scenes.

“He’s about as much an outdoorsman as
Woody Allen,” said a longtime collaborator, Dr. O. H. Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute. “He can’t row.”

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is looking into when and why Dr. Jarvik began taking Lipitor and whether the advertisements give the public a false impression, according to John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who is the committee’s chairman.

“It seems that Pfizer’s No. 1 priority is to sell lots of Lipitor, by whatever means necessary, including misleading the American people,” Mr. Dingell said.

Lipitor, the world’s single best-selling drug, is Pfizer’s biggest product, generating sales of $12.7 billion last year. But as it has come under competition from cheaper generic alternatives, Pfizer has used the Jarvik campaign, introduced in early 2006, to help protect its Lipitor franchise.

Pfizer spent $258 million from January 2006 to September 2007 advertising Lipitor, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Much of that went for the Jarvik campaign. ...

Criticism of consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals flared as an issue back in 2004, when Merck withdrew Vioxx, a heavily advertised painkiller, after a clinical trial showed that it sharply increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The pharmaceutical industry adopted voluntary guidelines the next year suggesting that companies delay advertising new products for an unspecified period after they first reach the market.

Despite the efforts by industry and government to curb drug advertising, spending on consumer drug ads increased more than 300 percent from 1997 to 2007, when it reached about $4.8 billion.

That last bit is more evidence for dispersing the pipe dream that conservatives sell about market regulation. The industry will not police itself when billions are up for grabs. It's that simple and simply the nature of business (the scorpion and the fox and all that).

Even if Dr. Jarvik did the ads for free, which the Times article doesn't discuss, they would still be dishonest and amount to little more than Pfizer scrambling to keep people from switching to cheaper generics by using, and tarnishing, a trusted name in medical science.