Have a Heart


Since Barney Clark received the first Jarvik-7 artificial heart in 1982, more than 350 people have used the device, mostly as a temporary measure until they could receive a heart transplant. In addition to his totally artificial heart, Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the Jarvik-7, has developed a ventricular assist device (VAD), the Jarvik 2000, which augments the diseased heart’s ability to regulate blood flow. Jarvik’s company, Jarvik Heart, develops and manufactures medical devices for the treatment of congestive heart failure.

Indeed, Robert Jarvik should go down in history as a giant of modern medicine, a man whose ingenuity, whose ability to merge mechanical engineering and medicine have given hundreds of people a longer life and have improved the quality of life of many thousands more, including those who will benefit from the efforts of researchers who will build on Jarvik’s work. As it turns out, however, Robert Jarvik is actually a dire threat to public welfare, or so Congress would have us believe.

In 2006, Jarvik began appearing in television and print commercials for Pfizer Pharmaceutical’s cholesterol-lowering medication, Lipitor. Because of the scientific research that links heart disease and high cholesterol, as well as the fact that Jarvik is a scientist who has studied the human heart extensively, he would seem a perfect fit as a spokesman for Lipitor. U.S. congressmen John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), however, don’t see it that way.

The congressmen believe that Jarvik appears to be giving medical advice in the ads, something which he is not qualified to do under current laws. Despite his medical degree, Jarvik is not a licensed physician but a medical scientist. One must wonder, however, what qualifies Dingell and Stupak to question the qualifications of anyone in the medical field other, of course, than their positions as U.S. congressmen.

However, the issues here are deeper than simply determining whether politicians are qualified to determine who should be giving medical advice and who should not. (By the way, Pfizer submits its advertising concepts to the FDA for review in advance of beginning its ad campaigns.)

Pfizer hired Jarvik not as a medical expert but as a spokesman. In the ads, Jarvik simply states what Pfizer, on the basis of scientific studies and research, claims Lipitor does. Moreover, Jarvik specifically states that consumers should consult with their personal physicians before using the drug.

Having Jarvik in the ads certainly carries more weight because of his status, but isn’t that exactly what one would want in a spokesman? Someone who the consumer believes is credible and knows what he is talking about? In any case, unless Pfizer or its spokesman commits fraud by knowingly making false statements, what does it matter whom Pfizer employs as its spokesman? As long as the statements that Pfizer and its representatives make about Lipitor are not fraudulent, Pfizer’s choice of spokesman is none of the government’s business.

For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that Jarvik is giving medical advice in the Lipitor commercials. Does the fact that he is not a licensed physician inherently disqualify him from offering such advice? Using Dingell and Stupak’s logic, a licensed general practitioner is more qualified to offer such advice than a research scientist who specializes in cardiac function and whose work is on display in the Smithsonian Institution.

All too often, licenses simply represent government sanction, nothing more. Despite what politicians claim, licensing laws are not designed to protect the public, but to eliminate competition by protecting those individuals and companies already established in the specified field. This holds especially true in the heavily regulated world of medicine. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, for example, called the American Medical Association a government-sanctioned guild that drives up the cost of medical care by limiting the supply of physicians and reducing or eliminating competition from other medical practitioners, such as chiropractors.

Jarvik’s plight, along with paternalistic and often corrupt practice of licensing laws, illustrates the attitude of modern politicians towards the relationship between the state and its citizens. While the Founding Fathers believed that government’s main responsibility was to protect its citizens from external threats, too many current politicians believe that the government must protect us from ourselves.

Do Dingell and Stupak really believe that thousands of Americans are going to run out and start taking Lipitor just because they saw some guy on TV pitch it? While a small minority may do so, most people will not. In addition, most people do rely on their personal physician for medical advice. Perhaps Dingell and Stupak believe that doctors will swoon after seeing Jarvik on television and begin prescribing the drug like maniacs because they are awed by his celebrity. Are politicians then protecting us from our own doctors? Let’s hope not.

There may be a political component at play here as well. Pfizer recently announced plans to close three plants in Michigan, Dingell’s and Stupak’s home state. Dingell’s and Stupak’s actions may be an attempt to punish Pfizer for that decision. However, whether it is political revenge or paternalism that motivates Dingell and Stupak, it is the nanny state that has empowered them. The government should treat Americans like grown-ups fully responsible for their own lives and decisions, not children who need to be watched over and told what to do. As C.S. Lewis said, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised ‘for the good of its victims’ may be the most oppressive.”

Pfizer should be able to choose any spokesman it wants to promote its products. It is still the consumers’ responsibility to educate themselves about the products. Fortunately, because it is in doctors’ best interest to keep their patients healthy and happy, most competent doctors will research the benefits and risks of drugs and can usually give their patients expert advice. Can the politicians who seek to control our healthcare system say the same?

If liberty means nothing else, it means that individuals should be in control of their lives and therefore should be free to voluntarily associate with whomever they wish and to seek advice from whomever they wish. Instead, politicians and bureaucrats continually infringe upon these freedoms and force their will on us through government edict.

The fact that the government now has Robert Jarvik in its crosshairs just reinforces what many of us have long known. The State has no heart … and no head.

February 7, 2008