Congress probes celebrities in drug ads

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Congress is investigating the use of celebrity endorsements in pharmaceutical advertising – starting with a “celebrity physician,” artificial heart inventor Dr. Robert Jarvik.

In a letter to Pfizer honcho Jeff Kindler, Michigan Democrats John Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, announced that they are looking into Pfizer's use of Dr. Jarvik in ads for Lipitor.

“We are concerned that consumers may misinterpret the health claims of a prescription drug promoted in a direct-to-consumer advertisement utilizing a celebrity physician,” Dingell wrote, adding that consumers might also overestimate the qualifications of Dr. Jarvik “given that he may not be a practicing physician with a valid license in any state.”

The letter, dated Jan. 7, requested, within two weeks, all records pertaining to the campaign, which launched in the spring of 2006, and Pfizer's relationship with Dr. Jarvik, including financial records, contractual arrangements, contracts, emails, correspondence and scripts for TV and print ads with Jarvik.

The committee also requested “any records relating to the veracity of any claims made by Dr. Jarvik” in ads, “including but not limited to his use of Lipitor” and “all records relating to Dr. Jarvik's professional qualifications and why Pfizer chose him as their spokesman for Lipitor.”

The company is also ordered “not to destroy, dispose of or tamper with” any records of potential interest to the inquiry and to pass that along to all contractors involved in the campaign, created by Publicis' Kaplan Thaler Group.

Dr. Jarvik invented the Jarvik 7, the first successfully implanted permanent artificial heart, and heads his own New York-based medical device firm Jarvik Heart, but is not a practicing physician. He has drawn scrutiny in the past through his penchant for showmanship (for example, holding press conferences on the first Jarvik 7 in surgical scrubs) and somewhat checkered early training (he initially went into medical engineering because poor grades disqualified him from US medical schools, though he later went on to earn a medical degree). In addition, Jarvik 7 patients were fairly short-lived after implantation. The first, in 1982, lasted 112 days and suffered serious complications. The longest-lived lasted 620 days with the device. These grim early prognoses prompted The New York Times to editorialize in 1988 that the experiments were "The Dracula of medical technology."
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