Lipitor pitchman defends controversial ads

January 16, 2008 1:41:42 PM PST
He's the medical pitchman for one of the most profitiable drugs on the market. Now, Congress is asking if he should be.

For months, Dr. Robert Jarvik, who invented the artificial heart, has been the face millions of Americans see every night, in a high-budget series of ads.

"After my father died, I devoted my life to studying the heart," says the advertisement for Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug. "Lipitor is one of the most researched medicines. I'm glad to take Lipitor, as a doctor, and a dad."

It is one of the most popular and profitable drugs in the nation.

Now, the ads, and Dr. Jarvik are under fire.

The chairman of a congressional committe has launched an investigation into the ads, and Jarvik's credential to pitch a medication.

Representative John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, asks, "Is he entitled to give the appearance he can prescribe prescription pharmaceuticals? I think the law in every state and the federal government would say no, he's not, because he's not admitted to the practice of medicine in any state we can find."

It turns out that despite his famous medical breakthrough, Jarvik ended his medical training after medical school. He's never been licensed to practice medicine, and so, is not allowed to prescribe medication.

Congress is also asking for records proving Jarvik took the medication, as he states in the ads.

In an exclusive interview on Good Morning America, Jarvik told Diane Sawyer he began taking Lipitor about a month after he began doing to advertisements. He said he had been unable to bring his cholesterol down, despite exercise and healthy eating.

Jarvik said he didn't feel the ads were misleading, and didn't understand why there was a controversy. He said the commercials were education, because they carry a message of heart disease prevention.

Some medical experts say if that message were sincere, Jarvik should be talking about generic cholesterol drug, not the higher-priced Lipitor.

Katie Watson, of Northwestern University's Medical Humanities and Bioethics program, says, "to have a celebrity physician associated with cardiac health telling me i need lipitor? and when it costs significantly more than a generic alternative that might be appropriate for me? that's a physician motivated by a paycheck, not by patient health."

Over the last decade, there's been a barrage of pharmaceutical advertising in the U-S. Last year alone, pharmaceutical companies spent 4-point-8 billion dollars on it.

Jarvik isn't the first celebrity pitchman for a drug - Senator Bob Dole helped advertise Viagra, and actress Sally Field promotes Boniva, an osteoporosis medication.

However, critics wonder whether Jarvik may have crossed an ethical line.

Congressman Dingell says, "We're looking to see if there is wrongdoing but also we're looking to see if the law needs to be changed to give us a better level of protection for the consumers."