Pfizer’s commercials for Lipitor featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik, “inventor of the artificial heart,” are probably among the most recognized drug ads on TV today. The ads rely on us viewers assuming that because Dr. Jarvik supposedly invented the artificial heart, he must be an authority on cholesterol… Right? The ad above has Dr. Jarvik saying “Just because I’m a doctor doesn’t mean I don’t worry about my cholesterol.”

Hmmm… What if the ads also said that Dr. Jarvik never actually practiced medicine, and in fact never even got licensed to practice medicine? Suddenly, he doesn’t seem like that much of an authority, does he?

Well, apparently that is the case. The Energy and Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives is investigating “the use of celebrity endorsements of prescription medications in direct-to-consumer advertising, specific to Dr. Robert Jarvik’s appearance in Pfizer’s Lipitor Commercials,” according to the Committee’s press release:

Washington, D.C. – Reps. John D. Dingell (D-MI), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak (D-MI), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, announced today that they are opening an investigation into the use of celebrity endorsements of prescription medications in direct-to-consumer advertising, specific to Dr. Robert Jarvik’s appearance in Pfizer’s Lipitor Commercials.

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

“Dr. Jarvik’s appearance in the ads could influence consumers into taking the medical advice of someone who may not be licensed to practice medicine in the United States,” said Stupak. “Americans with heart disease should make medical decisions based on consultations with their doctors, not on paid advertisements during a commercial break.”

It’s not surprising that Pfizer chose Dr. Jarvik as its spokesperson. In the past three years, we’ve seen a stampede of white coats in drug ads — either actual doctors or actors dressed up like doctors. The white coat conveys authority and gravity to the ads.

But there’s something very bothersome about using a “Doctor” who has no license to practice medicine, and who in fact apparently has never done so, to advertise Lipitor. And that is the fact that particularly when it comes to cholesterol medications, the prescribing details matter. The decision of whether to prescribe a statin (such as Lipitor, Crestor, Zocor, Pravachol, etc.) and which statin to prescribe are ones that require a fair amount of knowledge and experience on the part of the doctor — different patients need different statins, different statins have different side effects. So who should use Lipitor -versus another statin or even versus just changes to diet and exercise – are complicated questions requiring doctors to know a fair amount. Yet Pfizer has Dr. Jarvik, who can’t even practice medicine, advising consumers to take Lipitor!

It’s a measure of what Pfizer thinks of us lowly consumers that they use a celebrity doctor spokesperson who can’t even prescribe the product they’re endorsing.

What with the recent flap over Montel Williams, PhRMA’s patient assistance spokesperson, threatening to “blow up” a high school student, and now the revelation about “Doctor” Jarvik, it makes us wonder whether celebrities are the best choice for drug ads…

p.s. To get unbiased info on what statin makes sense for which patients, see Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs report on statins.

See also an Associated Press article on this dust-up.

Hat-tip: FiercePharma