Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri scolds TV’s Dr. Oz about diet fads

06/17/2014 3:53 PM

06/18/2014 7:16 AM

Mehmet Oz’s enthusiasm for “miracle” weight loss cures landed the celebrity surgeon in the hot seat Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers grilled him about dubious diet products popularized on his hit TV talk show.

Oz was the star witness at a hearing on diet scams led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who chairs a Senate panel on consumer protection.

In sometimes contentious exchanges with McCaskill and other senators, Oz described himself as a victim. He makes no money from any of the treatments touted on “The Dr. Oz Show,” he said, but unscrupulous advertisers use his words and image to cash in on the latest fat-busting fad.

“I am forced to defend my reputation every single day,” Oz complained.

McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor, didn’t hide her skepticism. She warned Oz that she had some tough questions for him about his role — “intentional or not” — in perpetuating diet scams.

“When you feature a product on your show, it creates what has become known as the ‘Oz effect,’ dramatically boosting sales and driving scam artists to pop up overnight using false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products,” she said.

Since 2010, the Federal Trade Commission has collected almost $107 million in restitution from companies for deceptive advertising about weight loss products and services. Scammers often try to capitalize on diet fads promoted by TV personalities such as Oz, said Mary Koelbel Engle, associate director of the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices.

“When consumers see products and ingredients marketed in sophisticated ways on respected media outlets and praised by people they trust, it can be difficult for them to listen to their internal voices telling them to beware,” Engle told lawmakers.

Although Americans spend $2.4 billion a year on weight loss products and services, there is little scientific proof that pills and supplements can melt pounds off and keep them off without long-term diet and lifestyle changes, she said.

“The promise of fast or easy weight loss without changes to diet and lifestyle is especially pernicious because it may deter consumers from making tough but necessary changes that are known to work,” Engle said.

To kick off the hearing, McCaskill played a video clip of Oz extolling the virtues of green coffee bean extract in 2012. She noted that the FTC had recently sued a Florida company, Pure Green Coffee, accusing it of using fake news websites and bogus weight loss claims to market the beans.

“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. … Why would you cheapen your show?” she asked Oz. “I know you feel that you’re a victim, but sometimes conduct invites being a victim. I think that if you would be more careful, maybe you wouldn’t be victimized quite as frequently.”

A frustrated Oz acknowledged that he uses “flowery language” to engage his audience and encourage viewers to take steps to get healthy, even if those steps include short-term “crutches” such as dietary supplements or pills.

“My job on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience and give them hope,” he said.

He defended his endorsement of green coffee beans and other nontraditional treatments, including raspberry ketone and garcinia cambogia, a tropical fruit.

“I do personally believe in the items that I talk about on the show,” he said.

Oz pointed out that he also discusses the power of prayer, even though prayer isn’t scientific.

“It’s hard to buy prayer,” McCaskill said. “Prayer’s free.”

“Yes, that’s a very good point,” Oz admitted. “Prayer’s free.”

McCaskill and other senators on the panel urged Oz to use the power he wields responsibly.

“You can use your knowledge and celebrity status to do good things, and right now it seems we’re going the opposite way here,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.

McCaskill told Oz the purpose of the hearing wasn’t “to beat up on you, but … to talk about a real crisis in consumer protection, and you can be part of the problem or you can be part of the police.”

Oz said, “I came here because I want to be part of the solution.”

He assured the senators he has already changed the way he talks about dietary supplements and pills. He said he exercises more restraint.

“I am in the situation where I’m second-guessing every word I say on the show now.”

To reach Lindsay Wise, call 202-383-6007 or send email to lwise@mcclatchydc.com. Follow her on Twitter at lindsaywise.

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