The news: With a doctor's backing, a weight-loss program that's clearly a scam can feel surprisingly legitimate, especially when that doctor is a celebrity with his own syndicated daytime show.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is such a doctor, which is why he received a harsh scolding on Tuesday by the Senate subcommittee on consumer corruption. The hearing focused on fake diet products and how celebrity doctors such as Oz help to drive this industry.
"When you feature a product on your show it creates what has become known as the 'Dr. Oz Effect' — dramatically boosting sales and driving scam artists to pop up overnight using false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs the committee. "While I understand that your message is occasionally focused on basics like healthy eating and exercise, I am concerned that you are melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers."
Do they have a point? At the hearing, Oz admitted that he uses some "flowery" language on his show to talk up certain products, but added that he does "personally believe in the items I talk about on the show."
"I recognize that oftentimes they don't have the scientific muster to pass as fact. I have given my family these products," he said.
That's all well and good, except for the fact that a lot of people actually rely on Oz for "the scientific muster." He's a professor and the vice-chair of surgery at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and holds degrees from Harvard and University of Pennsylvania. He's won a slew of medical awards in addition to Emmys for his show — and yes, he's Oprah-approved.
All those credentials have translated into blind trust among many of Oz's viewers. According to Forbes, after Oz featured Neti Pots on his show, sales rose by 12,000% while Internet searches for the item increased by 42,000%. Despite the fact that Neti Pots can actually lead to infections, people are content to take Oz at his word — he's on TV, after all.
Is Oz also a victim? According to him, yes. At the hearing, Oz talked about how many times his image has been illegally used by companies to advertise their shady products. In fact, after he and Oprah talked up the virtues of the acai fruit, more than 40 companies sold acai berry and other products with their names on them. The duo ended up suing these companies.
But if Oz is a victim, it's his own fault. There's little-to-no scientific evidence for all the miracle drugs he has showcased on his show and Oz has admitted that he promotes some items just to give people hope. And that hope helps the $2.4 billion weight-loss industry grow.
"The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of a few products that you have called miracles," McCaskill said at the hearing. "I just don't understand why you need to go there ... You are being made an example of today because of the power you have in this space."
At best, Oz is an overly enthusiastic doctor recommending products he's unsure of — at worst, he's a quack. All the hope he offers his viewers can't change the fact that many are throwing money at a cure that's not real.