High-Tech Snake Oil?

If you pay attention to the news, you’ll have noticed the breaking scandal over anti-cholesterol medicines. One, Vytorin, turns out to be at least half fake. The other, Lipitor, has VERY deceptively employed “Dr.” Robert Jarvik, the Harvard Med School student who never completed his training, and is not a physician and cannot prescribe medicines, but invented the artificial heart.

Turns out “Dr.” Jarvik — who looks every inch like a marathon-running vegan — probably didn’t start taking the Lipitor he says in his ads that he’s been personally using thankfully “as a doctor, and a dad” until after he started shilling for the Pfizer corporation, Lipitor’s peddler.

This, of course, raises the obvious follow-up question about whether Jarvik has actually ingested the pills or merely flushed them down his heated, gold-plated crapper.

But whatever the details of these two huge, well-researched medi-frauds may prove be, the most important points are certain to go unmentioned. Among these are:

1) The human meaning of the fact that there was $4.8 billion spent on U.S. drug advertising last year. That sum is greater than the GDPs of each of the Earth’s 45 poorest countries. And $4.8 billion is only the ADVERTISING number, meaning it’s only the tip of the iceberg. As is known by those who take the trouble to comprehend what corporate marketing is and how it works, advertising is merely the endpoint of the marketing process. Before it comes targeting, marketing research, and “product management.” Those processes are much more expensive than even advertising, which, per minute, is by far the most lavishly-funded form of video and pictorial drama, Hollywood blockbusters included.

2) The amount of fraud and waste in the capitalist medical-industrial complex. This cholesterol fracas suggests the share of naked snake-oiling going on is far bigger than even most single-payer advocates have suggested. How affordable could we make single-payer if we also ended these criminal schemes?

3) The profound irrationality of the corporate capitalist health destruction/care process. The amounts big business investors spend on drug marketing are beyond dwarfed by the megabucks they allocate to selling fast food, junk food, television-watching, and automobile-owning/driving. It’s the perfect racket: With one hand, you create the epidemic dangers; with the other, you profitably throw (often fake) pills at the symptoms. It is what Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” — but the entity involved in the process is none other than the supposedly (and actually) sacred human life/body. Can you say “blasphemy”?

Michael Dawson is author of The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life (2004). He is the publisher of the blog The Consumer Trap, which aims to expose capitalism, marketing and market totalitarianism. Read other articles by Michael, or visit Michael's website.

13 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Eric Patton said on January 28th, 2008 at 8:35am #

    I don’t know anything about a scandal involving anti-cholesterol medications. I’m open to the possibility, and I would be interested to read about it. But this article contains no information about it, nor any links to information about it.

  2. Michael Dawson said on January 28th, 2008 at 1:29pm #

    The Jarvik “gratefulness” quote links to one facet of the story. You can also just Goggle the drug names.

    I presumed in this piece that people had heard the basic stories — that Vytorin doesn’t work as claimed, and that Jarvik is not a doctor and only became “grateful” for Lipitor after Pfizer started paying him to misrepresent himself and their pill.

    I’m not saying all cholesterol meds are bogus, btw. They may prove to be that or worse, but the jury is still out on that question.

  3. rosemarie jackowski said on January 28th, 2008 at 2:31pm #

    The advertising by the drug companies is a less important issue than the safety of the meds. The deception by and problems with the pharmaceutical industry have been going on for a long time. I remember when new parents were advised to bathe their newborns in a soap containing hexachloraphine (which was later thought to cause damage to the brain stem). That was 40 years ago. Since then things have only gotten worse. Some of the anti-osteoporosis drugs that are still on the market are thought to cause necrosis of the jawbone. The public has to understand that the purpose of many drugs is simply to enrich the manufacturers. The complicity of the FDA has been apparent for a long time. And what is the purpose of thimerosal in the vaccines that are injected into newborns??????

  4. Michael Dawson said on January 28th, 2008 at 2:46pm #

    Yes, the at-least-half-ineffectiveness of Vytorin makes one wonder what the real story is with the other half, too. And we know for sure that a society with the time, security, and resources (both mental and technological) to eat right and exercise would make much of this stuff unnecessary.

    But I would also hesitate to downplay the role of marketing in all this. They are quite consciously and carefully pushing people to go ask their doctors for these pills. And for doctors to prescribe them, too…

    What we really need is a completely open debate over the dynamics of health and illness and medicine. Ain’t gonna happen without a big push, though. Too much money to be made by our present ongoing disaster.

  5. rosemarie jackowski said on January 28th, 2008 at 4:08pm #

    Michael, you make the point that people should be protected from their own stupidity. I believe that all who base their medical decisions on the under-handed marketing campaigns of the corporations, maybe deserve what they get. People have the right to be stupid. The really big important issue for me is the 18,000 who die every year because of lack of access to health care. They have no choice. I support a Single Payer system. Until we get a Single Payer system, it is like having a 9/11 every 60 days. It seems to me that we should be going to “war” against the government/industrial/health complex until this issue is resolved. That’s the least that we owe to the 18,000 dead fellow citizens who died within the past year.

  6. Michael Dawson said on January 28th, 2008 at 4:37pm #

    They also have the right to smoke cigarettes. Does that make it OK to trick them into doing so via marketing?

    I’m not trying to protect people from themselves. I’m trying to protect them from our super-rich overclass, which insists on pushing a wide range of defective and dangerous products.

    Moreover, it’s simply not valid to talk about people being inherently stupid until you remove the lavishly-funded tricks and conundrums foisted by our economic planners. Do that, wait 50 years for the cultural habits they’ve created to recede, then we can start talking about people harming themselves.

    I agree with you 100-percent about single-payer, btw. This is not an either-or choice, though. In fact, it strikes me as being just the opposite: The case for public insurance gets stronger and gains more supporters when we explain the impact of unrestrained corporate priorities on other fronts.

    P.S. Car crashes kill 40,000+ U.S. residents every year.

  7. via said on January 29th, 2008 at 9:52am #

    I’ll send this to my son, a pre-med student keenly interested in this issue. Thanks.

  8. Michael Dawson said on January 29th, 2008 at 11:07am #

    The 01/21/08 issue of Advertising Age reports that “Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough Corp. [the makers of Vytorin] kept under wraps for more than a year findings that Vytorin does not deliver results.” All the while, they continued their $100+ million ad campaign.

    Overall, the definition of what constitutes fraud in advertising is laughably lax, if you understand how the marketing process works and how utterly central planned deception is within it.

    But this particular case easily crosses even the ridiculously faux-naive standards that are supposed to be in place. The planners of this affair belong in prison, and the corporations involved ought to be severely penalized, if not simply nationalized and restructured.

    None of that will happen, of course. Law enforcement is strictly for the little people in this country.

  9. Batocchio said on January 29th, 2008 at 11:10am #

    Interesting stuff. I know that Liptor actually has been effective for at least one person I know – but it was the doctor making that call and testing the results, not the patient lobbying for the drug because of an ad.

    There’s also the issue of the FDA being understaffed for the amount of applications they receive, and any political pressure. And the issue of pharmaceutical companies rushing drugs to market despite problems that they don’t always report.

    As you say, there’s a great deal of deceptive advertising and advertising in general. NPR did a decent story last year on all those drug ads, and how viwers tend to remember the images, but not the patter. (Every time I hear about the cost of a marketing campaign, or a political campaign, or the cost of the Super Bowl halftime show, or an ICBM “missile defense” system, I have to wonder about what else could have been done with that money.)

  10. Michael Dawson said on January 29th, 2008 at 2:45pm #

    As of the early 1990s, insiders were estimating that big business marketing in the U.S. was a trillion-dollar-a-year endeavor. It is now almost certainly twice that. And, by definition, the lion’s share of that is waste.

    We have all been hyper-sensitized about problems in the expenditure of public monies. We remain virtually uninformed about the far larger scale of “private” squandering.

  11. brantl said on January 30th, 2008 at 10:39am #

    “And what is the purpose of thimerosal in the vaccines that are injected into newborns??????” The purpose of thimerosal is to be a preservative, so that you can stick a needle into a membrane sealed bottle and draw dose after dose out of a single container. It is a dangerous mercury salt. The only reason for its use in vaccines is to make the containers/packaging CHEAPER.

  12. Helen said on February 8th, 2008 at 12:20pm #

    Please “google” The Dangers of Statin Drugs, and go to the Weston A Price report. That is for beginners! I found that report 4 yrs. ago when I was told to take a statin. I refused. Today, more knowledge and findings tell us, that Statins don’t work, women should NEVER take one (1!!!), and that while they MAY sometimes reduce plaque, they cause muscle damage (INCLUDING THE HEART) …

    Also, statins deplete and stop the body’s NATURAL production of Co-Q-10, which guards the heart NATURALLY.

    Canada’s law FORCES this info re: Co-Q-10 to be put on prescriptions, but the USA does not.

    There is a LOAD of reading on this subject on the web.

    Also, check out the VitaminC Foundation’s web site, and take a peek at that! Vit. C, …. Now THERE ya’ go with the CURE!

    Best wishes, and KEEP READING, and get OFF the JUNK!

  13. Dennis Brasky said on February 9th, 2008 at 8:50pm #

    source of good info –