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Dr. Jarvik Lipitor Ads Halted by Pfizer

Feb 26, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Controversial Lipitor TV ads have been removed from the airways.  Pfizer announced Monday it would cancel a long-running ad campaign using artificial heart pioneer Robert Jarvik as a spokesman for its cholesterol drug Lipitor.  Pfizer spent over $258 million in advertising since January 2006, mostly on the Jarvik campaign, hoping to protect Lipitor from competition by cheaper generics.

The Jarvik ad campaign has come under scrutiny from a Congressional committee examining consumer drug advertising and questions if the ads misrepresented Jarvik and his credentials.  While Jarvik does have a medical degree he is neither a cardiologist, nor is he licensed to practice medicine.  In one ad Jarvik is presented as an accomplished rower; that ad used a body double for Jarvik, who does not row.  “The way in which we presented Dr. Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions from our primary goal of encouraging patient and physician dialogue on the leading cause of death in the world—cardiovascular disease,” Pfizer’s president of worldwide pharmaceutical operations, Ian Read, said. “We regret this.  Going forward, we commit to ensuring there is greater clarity in our advertising regarding the presentation of spokespeople.”  A company spokeswoman, Vanessa Aristide, said Pfizer was working with its ad agency, the Kaplan Thaler Group, on a new campaign.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee said Pfizer agreed to pay Jarvik at least $1.35 million under a two-year contract expiring next month.  John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who chairs that committee, raised questions about Jarvik’s credentials to recommend Lipitor.  Dingell and Bart Stupak, another Michigan Democrat said, “I commend Pfizer for doing the right thing and pulling the Lipitor ads featuring Dr. Jarvik.  When consumers see and hear a doctor endorsing medication, they expect the doctor is a credible individual with requisite knowledge of the drug.”

The committee asked 10 ad agencies that worked on the campaign to submit documents about the use of body doubles and has contacted at least one former colleague of Jarvik’s who contends Jarvik was not the inventor of the artificial heart, as stated in the ads.  Three former colleagues of Jarvik’s at the University of Utah complained in a 2006 letter to Pfizer that the ads erroneously identified Jarvik as “inventor of the artificial heart,” saying that distinction belongs to Jarvik’s mentor, Dr. Willem J. Kolff and his associate, Dr. Tetsuzo Akutsu.  Pfizer changed its ads to identify Jarvik as the inventor of the “Jarvik artificial heart”; however, Jarvik’s former colleagues, members of a large team that worked on the heart, were not satisfied, according to Dr. Donald B. Olsen, a veterinarian who worked on the heart and is president of the Utah Artificial Heart Institute.   The committee has contacted Olsen.

Another former Utah colleague, Dr. Clifford S. Kwan-Gett, states the Jarvik hearts were simply different versions of prototypes Kwan-Gett made over a year earlier.  Jarvik’s company, Jarvik Heart, subsequently posted a history of the artificial heart’s development on its Web site, in which it states that Jarvik’s design overcame two problems of the heart developed by Kwan-Gett.

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