Pity poor Dr. Mehmet Oz. He gets big bucks hosting the popular Opra Winfrey-syndicated “The Dr. Oz Show” on TV. But now he’s come under fire in Congress, in the media, and on the Internet for promoting health supplements that sold big due to his effusive recommendations -- products now considered by many to be largely useless. How did he respond?
With a technique we’ve seen used all too often by governments that indulge in questionable or reprehensible behavior, or by weasely politicians doing something sleazy and trying to reap benefits but not face consequences: by trying to use “plausible deniability.” He says his claims were about products he truly believed in, and was only guilty of using “flowery language.”
Oz’s recommendations to those who trusted him enriched the marketers of raspberry ketones, green coffee bean and garcinia cambogia, and kept Internet sites and health food stores selling these supplements busy. Consumer complaints and research indicating the products were overhyped finally reached Congress, where Sen. Claire McCaskill, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance gave Oz an earful at a hearing last month:
“The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called ‘miracles,’” she told him. “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. When you have this amazing megaphone, why would you cheapen your show? ... With power comes a great deal of responsibility.”
The Federal Trade Commission has sued the sellers of green coffee bean in Florida for their claims. Oz has long insisted others used his image without permission, and told McCaskill he was merely using “flowery” language .
“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,” he said.
Not quite. Oz wasn’t pitching hope. He was clearly asserting that these products were easy solutions to being overweight and, in effect, endorsing them. I saw how his name was being used in 2012.
From September 2011 - May 2012 I did a national school tour which involved driving 49,000 miles, and I often visit health food stores. For years, I’ve taken some kind of over-the-counter weight control supplement to give me an energy boost. I first became aware of Dr. Oz and his recommendations during the Spring of 2012 while visiting a Whole Foods in the mid-West. I asked the vitamin department person if there were any good, new weight control/energy products. She pointed to a shelve of raspberry ketones.
“Never heard of them,” I told her.
“You HAVEN’T?” she said, as if shocked. “Why, this is the one Dr. Oz recommended on his show, saying it makes the weight drop right off. It’s flying off our shelves. It’s the latest thing -- and Dr. Oz featured it!”
I asked:”Who is Dr. Oz?” I was, after all, on tour and never watched daytime TV. She explained, then added: “I tell you, people LOVE it! We almost can’t keep this in stock!”
She noted that you must use it for a few months to see its effect. And so I did, and it did absolutely nothing. During those months, I’d visit Sprouts and other health food stores and the mantra was the same: try garcinia, green coffee bean, Dr. Oz said it’s great, we can’t keep it in stock. Why did I and others keep using the products? Because you’re always told supplements take a while to kick in. And being told a product was “flying of the shelves” was highly persuasive.
Oz hasn’t really been misunderstood. In the Wizard of Oz the curtain was drawn back to reveal a little man at a mike pretending to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Now curtain has been drawn back to reveal an otherwise respected doctor squandering his built-up credibility by dabbling in hype carefully couched in legal plausible deniability.
But deniability it is -- and plausible it most assuredly isn’t.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at email@example.com