WASHINGTON — Dr. 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 hosted by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a 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 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.
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.”