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The makers of Vytorin and Zetia have announced that they are pulling TV ads for the drugs. The companies waited a whole week to take this action after it was reported that a study found that Zetia was not effective at reducing cholesterol and that Vytorin was no more effective than the much cheaper Zocor (Vytorin is a combination of Zetia and Zocor), and might actually be worse. The study findings also reported that Vytorin and Zetia do not reduce plaque build-up in the arteries, and in some cases actually increase the production of plaque.

Of course, Merck and Schering-Plough are not saying that they have pulled the TV advertising because their drugs are defective or dangerous. That would be too conscious of the public good. No, Merck and Schering-Plough say that the study findings have been misinterpreted and mischaracterized, so they are suspending TV advertising for now. Interestingly, print ads for Vytorin and Zetia will continue.

I am not a fan of direct-to-consumer advertising by the drug companies. I think this type of advertising gives the drug manufacturers a stronger and wider platform by which to promote false and misleading information about their products. A perfect example is the Lipitor advertising featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik, inventor of the artificial heart. This is the first time that such a high profile doctor has been used for endorsement purposes in a pharmaceutical advertisement. No doubt Pfizer assumed that Dr. Jarvik’s endorsement would persuade the public into believing that Lipitor has to be the best heart medicine. No doubt Pfizer also assumed that the general public would not know that although he graduated from medical school, Dr. Jarvik has never had a license to practice, has never practiced medicine and has never prescribed medications. Are you now surprised that Jarvik ends the commercial by saying “Lipitor is one of the most researched medicines. I’m glad I take Lipitor, as a doctor, and a dad.” Does the Jarvik endorsement mean as much now?

Armed with that knowledge, would you be so inclined to ask for Lipitor at the next doctor’s visit? I think not. Pfizer’s gamble has certainly paid off given that Lipitor sales have steadily increased since Jarvik ads started appearing.

I think the drug companies have gone too far. This latest incident with Vytorin and Zetia prove that drugs are not being well tested before they are put on the market. And since the drug companies are allowed to advertise directly to consumers, sales take off like a rocket and too many people become guinea pigs for new, untested and unproven medications. Pulling ads, temporarily, for drugs that are found to be dangerous and ineffective is not enough. The FDA should prohibit the drug manufacturers from running the ads to start with. An even better suggestion – the drug companies should use their advertising dollars to conduct more testing on their drugs before they are brought to market.

For more information on this subject, please refer to our section on Drugs, Medical Devices and Implants.

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