Following a flood of criticism in the USA, Pfizer has pulled advertising for its blockbuster Lipitor which feature the celebrity heart specialist Robert Jarvik, saying that the ads have caused “misimpressions and distractions”.

The New York-based drugs giant had been using Dr Jarvik, inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart, to promote the cholesterol drug but the adverts have attracted attention because the protagonist is not licensed to practice medicine and cannot even write a prescription for Lipitor (atorvastatin).

In the ads, Dr Jarvik, who reportedly received a fee in excess of $1 million, appears to be acting as a doctor and giving out medical advice. Now Pfizer’s head of worldwide pharmaceutical operations, Ian Read, has acknowledged that “the way in which we presented Dr Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions from our primary goal of encouraging patient and physician dialogue on the leading cause of death in the world - cardiovascular disease”.

He added that “we regret this. Going forward, we commit to ensuring there is greater clarity in our advertising regarding the presentation of spokespeople”. Dr Jarvik had issued a statement earlier saying that “I do not practice clinical medicine and hence do not treat individual patients” but noted that “my career is in medical science”. He went on to list his qualifications and list of honours, noting that “I have the training, experience, and medical knowledge to understand the conclusions of the extensive clinical trials that have been conducted to study the safety and effectiveness of Lipitor”.

Dr Jarvik continued by noting that Pfizer submits advertising concepts in advance to the US Food and Drug Administration for review and comment and the ads “fairly represent the scientific truth about Lipitor, which the public has a right to know, and which Pfizer is entitled to teach”. He concluded by saying that “I am not a celebrity. I am a medical scientist specialising in advanced technology to treat heart failure who understands that no one in his or her right mind would want an artificial heart if it could be avoided with preventive medicine”.

However the ads have attracted a high degree of attention not least from the US Congress and the Committee on Energy and Commerce launched an investigation into the use of celebrity endorsements of prescription medications in direct-to-consumer advertising in January 7.

Bart Stupak, chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, commended Pfizer “for doing the right thing and pulling the Lipitor ads”. He added that “when consumers see and hear a doctor endorsing medication, they expect the doctor is a credible individual with requisite knowledge of the drug.

“We will continue to investigate the deception that occurs in direct-to-consumer advertising of medications, including Pfizer’s Lipitor campaign”, he said, concluding that “drug companies should know that they will be held accountable for the representations made in their ads”.