Advertising a different way to fight cholesterol – but without evidence on big outcomes

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I really don’t pay much attention to drug ads anymore. I feel I’ve learned everything I need to know about 4-hour erections, how the Flying Nun got grounded by osteoporosis, and how it’s a little green monster that causes my toenail fungus.

But sometimes ads seek you out.

Today I revisited my old stomping grounds, giving a guest lecture on media ethics at the University of Minnesota journalism school. And a student came up after class waving this full-page color ad he saw yesterday in the Star Tribune newspaper.

Zetia ad - top.jpg

It was a Zetia drug ad. The banner promotes the drug’s “different way to help lower cholesterol.”

But the student drew my attention to the bottom of the ad, and the ad copy:

Unlike some statins, ZETIA has not been shown to prevent heart disease or heart attacks.

Zetia ad - bottom.jpg

Oh, but it can lower cholesterol. And the ad mentions that six times.

We need to help people get smarter about sniffing out studies that only show results on test scores, on surrogate markers, on intermediate endpoints – studies that seem to suggest that risk factors for disease are, themselves, diseases. We need to help people think about whether findings really made a difference in peoples’ lives.

The student who brought me the ad sniffed out the story immediately. We need more like him.

Coincidentally, also today we posted a review of a story on that was flawed by failing to address this very issue. But this was a news story, not an ad. Room for improvement.

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Ken Leebow

April 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm

As always, thanks for pointing out these issues.
For this one, if you didn’t laugh so hard, you’d cry.
I’ve photographed many of the advertisements that move us toward taking cholesterol-lowering drugs
My next step is to take photos of all the ridiculous ads pushing drugs.

Carolyn Thomas

April 8, 2011 at 8:21 am

Hi Gary
Did you know that such Direct To Consumer “ask your doctor” ads are illegal here in Canada, and in all other countries except the U.S. and New Zealand? We might wonder why that is….
We might also wonder why on earth docs are continuing to prescribe Zetia? Prominent physicians have been brutal in their assessment of this drug. Zetia’s rise “was the miracle of marketing, not the miracle of medicine,” says cardiologist Dr. Sanjay Kaul of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. Steven Nissen adds: “We’ve spent billions on a drug that may turn out to be a placebo.”
DTC ads like this are part of a $741 million print, television and online ad campaign for Zetia and its sister drug Vytorin since 2004. (Vytorin’s a mystery too – cardiologists Dr. John LaRosa claims: “There’s no reason to take Vytorin at all.”)

Michael Kirsch, MD

April 11, 2011 at 8:30 am

Every few years, the level for a ‘normal’ cholesterol decreases. Soon, the entire country will be diseased and need treatment,


    May 18, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The standard for “normal” improves over time as science and technology advance. During the Stone Age, it was “normal” to die in your twenties. Being mortal will be a disease, once we find a cure for it.