So much for self-policing.
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Explore This IssueJune 2015
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Oz, the Wizard
With all the negative media surrounding dietary supplements, one might expect the public’s appetite for these products to be diminished. In fact, the $33 billion supplement industry continues to flourish, aided and abetted by a wide cast of supporters, ranging from lobbyists in Washington, led by the son of the author of the DSHEA and five of this senator’s former aides, to its vocal, celebrity boosters who pump up the sales of these products. Some, such as Kevin Trudeau, have a checkered past, including felony convictions and multimillion-dollar fines. Others, including Joe Mercola, DO, an osteopathic doctor in Illinois, promote outrageous claims that have repeatedly run afoul of even the hamstrung FDA. But there is one individual whose influence far exceeds the sway of these mere mortals—Mehmet Oz, MD.
Dr. Oz, once hailed for his talents as a skilled cardiovascular surgeon, rose to the rank of vice chair of surgery at Columbia University in New York City. After a series of frequent appearances with Oprah Winfrey, he was given his own television show, which became enormously popular, attracting at its peak in 2011, nearly 4 million viewers per week. Dubbed, “America’s Doctor” by Ms. Winfrey, he has repeatedly espoused his beliefs that miracle cures can be found in many of the products that he promotes. For example, Dr. Oz promoted garcinia cambogia, African mango seed and, in particular, green-coffee bean extract as weight-loss marvels, even though all lack data to support their health claims.
“You may think that magic is make believe,” Dr. Oz said at the beginning of one typical show, “but this little bean has scientists saying they have found a magic weight-loss cure for every body type. It’s green coffee beans, and, when turned into a supplement, this miracle pill can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.”9
Following the broadcast of this show, several companies sold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of the supplement. This phenomenon has become known as the “Oz effect.” The Federal Trade Commission (unlike the FDA, it is not legally barred from taking action) subsequently sued the companies for false and deceptive advertising. In January, the man behind two of the companies agreed to refund $9 million to customers.10
Recently, Dr. Oz has come under attack from a group of physicians who have raised questions about his various questionable endorsements and his disdain for evidence-based medicine. How does Dr. Oz get away with his shtick? Despite his outlandish claims, he is a talented and telegenic showman who intersperses some useful medical advice concerning previously taboo topics on medical shows, such as menopause and bowel movements. After all, why wouldn’t a viewer trust a doctor who carries the imprimatur of Columbia University? There are constant reminders of his status as an important doctor at a very important medical institution, including video segments depicting him hard at work in the operating room or holding the hand of a sick patient at their bedside. Lest the viewer forget, he often dons his favored studio outfit, surgical scrubs. This is what is most baffling about the show: Why would a revered institution that has produced outstanding physicians, countless Nobel laureates (including physicians Edward Kendall, Joshua Lederberg, Baruj Benacerraf and Harold Varmus, to name a few) and many of the current leaders of American medicine continue to allow its good name—its brand—to be tarnished by its association with Dr. Oz?