February 8th, 2008

Psst! Wanna buy some snake oil?

By Editorial
The Telegram (Canada)

Oh, it’s tangly.

Odds are, a fair number of people have seen it here, even though it’s an American drug advertisement that runs on American stations. It has certainly been seen in this province courtesy of Rogers Cable; it’s a handy little ad about the value of the cholesterol-reducing drug Lipitor.

The ad features Dr. Richard Jarvik, a pioneer in American medicine and one of the first designers of an artificial heart. The Jarvik 7 was first put into the chest of a retired dentist, who managed to live for 112 days with the device
chugging along inside him.

The ads are slick, outdoors spots showing Jarvik out running with his son and rowing a racing scull across a pond, and includes the line, “When diet and exercise aren’t enough, adding Lipitor significantly lowers bad cholesterol.”

The ads are also raising ire in the U.S., and increasing debate about the role of advertising drugs to prospective patients.

Right now, we get only the spillover ads; drug companies can’t advertise in Canadian media the way they can in the United States. But it’s worth watching what happens to the south of us, because drug companies would like to have the same freedoms here.

The use of a celebrity medical figure like Jarvik is a particularly good example of the pitfalls: he has a medical degree, but he’s not licensed to practise medicine. On top of that, he has no training as a cardiologist.

Not only that — he doesn’t even know how to row: in the Pfizer Lipitor ads, the advertising company involved hired a stunt double to do the rowing.

“He’s about as much an outdoorsman as Woody Allen,” one co-worker told The New York Times.

Leave aside that the ad introduces the rowing man as Jarvik, or the fact that the two men are wearing identical outfits to extend the fiction; it all adds up to a tangled ethical problem.

The value of having Jarvik in the ads is clearly the lustre of having a recognizable medical figure sell a drug to you. It’s a much more involved version of having people in white lab coats talking about the benefits of cold medicine or over-the-counter painkillers.

It’s also an object lesson in why there should be clear restrictions on prescription drug advertising, if that advertising is going to be allowed at all.

You particularly need regulation when it appears no one in the industry is going to practice anything close to ethical behavior. The aim is to sell volumes of a particular product — nothing more, nothing less.

It all brings us to those famous, rushed lines you hear at the end of every prescription drug advertisement from the States, where a quiet, urgent voice sprints through the panoply of possible side-effects, from big to small to downright terrifying.

“May cause dry-mouth, nausea and shortness of breath. If unexpected heavy bleeding occurs, contact medical help immediately.”

They left out the part where they’re supposed to say “take with a hefty grain of salt.”

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