Dr. Oz selling 'fairy dust,' says medical ethicist

A medical ethics expert says TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz is going too far in endorsing "kooky, nonsensical" products on his daytime chat show.

Expert says doctor could face peer review over endorsement of weight-loss products

Dr. Oz is shown testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington over his endorsement of weight-loss products. (Lauren Victoria Burke/Associated Press)

A medical ethics expert says TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz is going too far in endorsing “kooky, nonsensical” products on his daytime chat show.

The celebrity doctor was scolded at a U.S Senate hearing earlier this week for his endorsement of various weight-loss products, including a green coffee bean extract that he called a "magic weight loss cure for every body type."

“Dr. Oz is basically promoting fairy dust and what I mean by that, he spends some time in the show sending legitimate messages about health and how to preserve your health to his large audience, but he spends too much time touting fads, touting unproven remedies,” said Arthur Caplan, founding director of the division of medical ethics at New York University.

In an interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Caplan said Dr. Oz was “getting too far down the road of non-traditional medicine, alternative medicine and then even further into unproven, even shyster medicine.”

Caplan said the doctor, a reputable cardiothoracic surgeon, is raising the kinds of doubts among his peers that could tarnish his reputation.

“He could have some legal troubles coming out of this, because if someone said, ‘I followed your advice, I used this and I had an adverse event or an untoward outcome,’ they might try to hold him liable for that,” Caplan said. 

If you make claims about the efficacy of things, you could be violating laws within the states that require honest and truthful advertising- Arthur Caplan, medical ethicist

“If you make claims about the efficacy of things, you could be violating laws within the states that require honest and truthful advertising.”

Dr. Oz admitted to the Senate committee he used flowery language about the products, but said he was trying to give hope to watchers who want to lose weight.

"My job, I feel, on the show is to be a cheerleader for the audience, and when they don't think they have hope, when they don't think they can make it happen, I want to look, and I do look everywhere, including in alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them," Dr. Oz said.

He said he earns nothing from the makers of these products and that many of the products that market using his name are doing so illegally.

'Drain the swamp'

Dr. Oz promised the Senate he would "drain the swamp" of unscrupulous marketers using his name to peddle so-called miracle pills to millions of Americans desperate to lose weight.

Caplan agreed Dr. Oz has been careful not to have holdings in the companies that sell these weight-loss supplements, but said he has profited from offering a quick fix to his audiences.

“He doesn’t own any of these things or make money form their sales as far as I know but he certainly builds his ratings by promoting these things on his television show and on his website,” Caplan said.

“He wouldn’t have the audience he has if he stuck to the mainstream boring advice about health – lose weight, exercise more, drive carefully, eat well, wear a helmet when you ride a bike.”

Caplan said medical ethics, both in the U.S. and Canada, are clear that doctors shouldn’t be selling nutritional supplements or other things from their office. Dr. Oz hasn’t crossed that line.

“Where I think he could get into trouble is, ‘has he violated his ethical responsibility to be evidence-based, to only promote sound medical practice,’” Caplan said.

Audiences seduced

Caplan said Dr. Oz’s reputation as a distinguished academic and surgeon seduces his audiences into a “fantasy” where they believe they can lose weight in a few days.

“He puts that weight behind all kinds of kooky, nonsensical remedies that could get you in trouble with your peers, could get you a hearing with a medical board. Would he lose a licence – I doubt it, but he could draw attention,” Caplan said.

He recommended the chat-show host rethink his approach.

“He needs to have a kind of heart-to-heart with himself and say, 'look, yeah, there’s room to talk about alternative ideas, but I can’t equate them with the mainstream if they are fringe. They have to be identified as such. I can’t tell people they can lose weight in three days eating coffee beans or raspberries.'”


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