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Dr. Robert Jarvik, Pitchman

On January 7, the House Energy and Commerce committee began an investigation of celebrity endorsements in the marketing of prescription medicines. Of particular interest are the activities of Dr. Robert Jarvik, who became famous in 1982 when his artificial heart, the Jarvik-7, was implanted in the chest of a patient who went on to survive more than 100 days. Since 2006, Jarvik has appeared in TV  commercials   endorsing Pfizer’s top-selling product, Lipitor. Jarvik’s celebrity advertising efforts boosted already-brisk sales for the cholesterol-reducing drug.

Pharmaceutical companies have engaged in direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription medications for nearly two decades, and the hawking of drugs by celebrity spokespersons has become commonplace (for instance, Pfizer also used former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole to pitch Viagra). Jarvik’s endorsement raises ethical questions, however, about whether his recommendation constitutes professional advice. Though he has spoken at press conferences wearing surgical scrubs, Jarvik has never practiced medicine.  

On Monday, the committee sent the letter below and on the following page to Pfizer chief  Jeffrey Kindler demanding “all financial records relating to Dr. Jarvik’s association with Pfizer, including how much money he or any member of his family … has ever received” from the company. (Jarvik is married to Parade magazine columnist Marilyn vos Savant.) “Dr. Jarvik is a respected health care professional and heart expert,” Pfizer countered in the Wall Street Journal, and “the advertising advises consumers to speak to their physicians about their heart health.”

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