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Lipitor TV Spots Raise Debate Over Advertising Practices

A House Committee is exploring whether ads for the cholesterol drug Lipitor mislead the public because spokesman Dr. Robert Jarvik is not licensed to practice medicine and used a stunt double in a scene that portrays him rowing. Representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and consumers union debate advertising practices.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, an ad for a leading heart drug raises concerns. And Jeffrey Brown has our story.

  • AD NARRATOR:

    Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For the last two years, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has been running ads for the cholesterol drug Lipitor that feature Dr. Robert Jarvik, best known for developing an artificial heart 25 years ago.

    Lipitor is the top-selling drug in the world and Pfizer's biggest product, with $12.7 billion in sales last year. But it's been challenged in recent years by cheaper generic alternatives.

    Today, a front page New York Times story brought into the open a number of questions about the Jarvik ad and others in which prescription drugs are advertised directly to consumers.

    One issue, Dr. Jarvik's credentials. He has a medical degree, but is not a cardiologist and not licensed to practice medicine.

    Another issue raised is whether the ad is misleading in showing Dr. Jarvik vigorously rowing. In fact, he is not a rower, and a stand-in was used.

    A congressional committee, led by Democrat John Dingell, has been investigating the use of celebrity endorsements of prescription medications. In a press release today, Dingell said, quote, "In the ads, Dr. Jarvik seems to be dispensing medical advice, despite the fact that he is not licensed to practice the prescribed medicine."

    In a response to Congressman Dingell's initial inquiries, Dr. Jarvik said, in part, "I have the training, experience and medical knowledge to understand the conclusions of the extensive clinical trials that have been conducted to study the safety and effectiveness of Lipitor."

    For its part, Pfizer said in a statement that it stands behind its consumer advertising with Lipitor and "our work with Dr. Jarvik to deliver important information on managing heart health."

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