A US House of Representatives committee has opened an investigation into celebrity endorsements of drugs in advertising and in particular the appearance of heart specialist Dr Robert Jarvik in ads for Pfizer’s lipid-lowering blockbuster Lipitor.

Rep John Dingell (Democrat), chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said: “We are concerned that consumers might be misled by Pfizer’s television ads for Lipitor (atorvastatin) starring Dr Jarvik,” noting that in the ads, he appears to be giving medical advice, “but apparently, he has never obtained a license to practice or prescribe medicine.”

Bart Stupak, a Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, added that Americans with heart disease “should make medical decisions based on consultations with their doctors, not on paid advertisements during a commercial break”.

In a letter to Pfizer chief executive Jeffrey Kindler, the politicians ask the company to provide all records relating to the advertising campaign for Lipitor, including information relating to Dr Jarvik's qualifications and information on how much he received to appear in the adverts.

Pfizer responded by saying that it takes its responsibility with regard to direct-to-consumer advertising very seriously. “Our foremost concern is that the tone and content are appropriate for the intended audiences, and that it will ultimately result in encouraging valuable patient/physician dialogue that can lead to appropriate treatment”, it claimed.

The New York-based giant added that Dr Jarvik, inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart, “is a respected health care professional and heart expert [and] knows how imperative it is for patients to do everything they can to keep their heart working well”. Furthermore, “the advertising advises consumers to speak to their physicians about their heart health”, Pfizer concludes.