Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lipitor ads and the American way

     This is the way the world works — at least our corner of it.

     In 2006, drug giant Pfizer faced an embarrassing controversy, only not about what it was doing that was truly disgraceful.

     Red faces were in bloom over a series of TV and newspaper ads touting cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor and featuring Robert Jarvik, whom the ads touted as a physician and inventor of the artificial heart. Jarvik, ruggedly outdoorsy, shown in commercials rowing across a lake, told us that Lipitor had lowered his cholesterol.

    Preaching the drug's merits, he said, "You don't have to be a doctor to appreciate that." In that regard he was speaking from expertise, because he wasn't — a doctor, that is.

     And he hadn't invented the artificial heart (though he was involved in the process). And a body double was rowing the boat, not him.

    After a congressional inquiry on their veracity, the ads were pulled, and Pfizer went upon its merry way doing what really should have caused public outrage.

    What was really offensive about the ads was that they cost more than quarter billion dollars.

    How much good that money could have done in our world — schools built, teachers paid, suffering addressed. Instead, it went to merchandizing. Based on the model that most Americans salute, it's all good, because any dollar spent (unless evil government spends it), is a good dollar.

    The price of Lipitor is around $5 a pill. You can get the same pill in Canada for less than $2. That's immaterial, of course. Those extra $3 per pill are all good dollars spent (Pfizer makes $11 billion a year on Lipitor alone). Except, wait: Taxpayers — Medicare (government!) — pay for a lot of those pills.

    So why shouldn't we all be outraged when we see Lipitor commercials all over television today? Well, of course. Drug ads are just about the only thing that keep that vast entertainment wasteland from turning to dust.

     Drug ads are truly an odd species. First, they tell us to ask our doctors about these products, as if our doctors might not have heard of them. And maybe your doctor doesn't watch television, so ask.

     Also, clearly more than half the precious airtime time of these pricey TV spots is spent telling how these drugs can kill you.

     One wonders: Were it not for the horrific potential side effects associated with these drugs, how much of television would have to be thrown overboard? And would we all be healthier as a result?

     Are "Jersey Shore," "Keeping up With the Kardashians" and "Dance Moms" made necessary only because we have so many drug ads with so many warnings to tell, and not enough actual entertainment to satisfy drug industry needs?

    Well, here's some good news to report on this front, maybe.

    Pfizer, and Lipitor, are in a race against time. In November Lipitor's patent expires, along with that for blood-thinner Plavix and five among the world's 20 best-selling drugs. Generic versions then can enter the market and, conceivably, prices can drop.

    Pfizer is seeking Food and Drug Approval for an over-the-counter version of Lipitor. Translation: More drug advertisements, more bad television. Lower prices? Tune in tomorrow.

     Back when the Jarvik matter blew up in Pfizer's face, indignant congressmen called he company on the carpet to explain itself. What a bogus concern.

     Today, the pharmaceutical industry spends $2.5 billion a year on direct advertising to the masses (just about that much in direct marketing to physicians). You don't imagine that affects the price of our medicine, do you?

    But, hey, what do you want? Affordable medications or reality television? You choose.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.



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