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US lawmakers probe endorsements

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning an examination of the pharmaceutical industry's use of celebrity endorsements in DTC advertisements with a probe of Pfizer's advertisements for its top-selling cholesterol drug Lipitor

US Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are beginning an examination of the pharmaceutical industry's use of celebrity endorsements in direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements with a probe of Pfizer's advertisements for its top-selling cholesterol drug Lipitor (atorvastatin).

Republican John D Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, are leading the investigation.

The lawmakers take issue with Pfizer's use of Dr Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart, as a spokesperson in a series of print and television adverts for Lipitor.

Although Jarvik holds a medical degree from the University of Utah, he is not licensed to practice medicine; a fact that the Congressmen say is not made clear in the ads.

"We are concerned that consumers might be misled by Pfizer's television ads for Lipitor starring Dr Jarvik," Dingell said in a statement. "In the ads, Dr Jarvik appears to be giving medical advice, but apparently, he has never obtained a license to practice or prescribe medicine."

In one widely shown television ad, Jarvik begins by telling viewers, "Just because I'm a doctor doesn't mean I don't worry about my cholesterol." Later in the ad, he says, "Lipitor is one of the most researched medicines. You don't have to be a doctor to appreciate that."

The lawmakers have sent a letter to Pfizer asking the company to provide them with all of its records ñ including contracts, e-mails and correspondence ñ related to the advertising campaign, as well as all records related to Jarvik's financial association with the firm. In addition, they have requested materials detailing Jarvik's professional qualifications, his own use of Lipitor, and Pfizer's rationale for featuring him in the campaign.

Pfizer defended the ads, pointing out that Jarvik "is a respected healthcare professional and heart expert."

However, even before the lawmakers announced their concerns about Jarvik's medical qualifications, the Lipitor ads had attracted the attention of some medical ethicists and industry watchers for other reasons. For example, speaking during a commentary on National Public Radio, medical ethicist Katie Watson, of Northwestern University, noted that Jarvik "seems to be the first celebrity physician to endorse a prescription drug."

Watson called the use of the celebrity doctor "insidious," asserting: "We're in the realm of advertising, which means his loyalty isn't with my health, it's with Pfizer's."

Wider questions about the use of celebrities in DTC advertising have also been raised. The Federal Trade Commission is currently examining the question of whether the terms of celebrity endorsement of pharmaceuticals need fuller disclosure. 

Some high-profile uses of celebrities in ads for prescription drugs include the basketball star Magic Johnson's advertisements for GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) HIV drug Combivir (lamivudine/zidovudine), former Senator Bob Dole's Viagra (sildenafil) adverts, and baseball great Cal Ripken's campaign for Merck & Co's hypertension drug Prinivil (lisinopril).

9th January 2008

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