Pfizer has finally come under attack for its long-running ad campaign using the artificial heart pioneer Dr. Robert Jarvik as pitchman for its “anti-cholesterol” drug Lipitor. In the past two years Pfizer has spent more than $258 million in seeking to protect its market for statin drugs from the encroachment of the much cheaper generic, Simvastatin, Merck’s old Zocor. No wonder Pfizer was worried. In 2006 Lipitor was the top selling drug in the U.S., and was among the leaders in drug sales throughout the world.
Congress finally got into the act when the House Energy and Commerce Committee early this year decided to investigate the use of celebrity endorsements in marketing prescription drugs directly to consumers. Jarvik is Celebrity No. 1 on the list. “In the ads, Dr. Jarvik appears to be giving medical advice, but apparently, he has never obtained a license to practice or prescribe medicine,” John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Committee revealed. Nor did he ever take an interneship or residency. Nonetheless, Jarvik’s presence appears to have helped shore up Lipitor sales, which were $13 billion in 2006.
Dingell and company asked Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler to submit all records of the advertising campaign for Lipitor involving Jarvik, any financial records or other associations between the doctor and the company.
Finally, it was revealed that the Lipitor campaign was a deception from the start. Pfizer’s original TV commercial showed Jarvik rowing a racing shell across what appeared to be a mountain lake when in fact a stunt double was at the oars. Dr. Jarvik apparently does not row. Moreover, the ads fail to note that he only began taking Lipitor a month after he started shilling for Pfizer under a contract that would pay him a minimum of $1.35 million over two years.
Rather than take on the Committed, Pfizer instead decided to take a powder and recently ended the Lipitor advertising campaign. According to news reports the committee plans to continue its investigations of the Lipitor marketing campaign and of possible other deceptive advertising of prescription drugs to consumers.
As many critics of Big Pharma are aware (see my blog of Feb. 14, 2008), “DTC” or Direct to Consumer Advertising is the problem, not just celebrity endorsements. Until the U.S. makes drug promotions to the public illegal, as it is in virtually every major country, we will continue to suffer from the “Jarvik/Lipitor Effect.”