Dr. Oz Defends His ‘Miracles’

Sen. McCaskill grills the popular TV personality on his dubious nutrition claims.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
June 17, 2014, 8:20 a.m.

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Claire Mc­Caskill — the chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate Com­merce Sub­com­mit­tee on Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion — asked Dr. Mehmet Oz — the enorm­ously pop­u­lar talk-show host — the fol­low­ing ques­tion Tues­day morn­ing: “Why would you say something is a mir­acle in a bottle?”

That’s a ques­tion Oz’s crit­ics have long de­man­ded answered.

While his day-time health show reaches mil­lions, Dr. Oz has come un­der fire for en­dors­ing nu­tri­tion sup­ple­ments with du­bi­ous ef­fic­acy. One of those products was green cof­fee bean ex­tract, a sub­stance de­rived from cof­fee that is mar­keted as a weight-loss sup­ple­ment. In a 2012 broad­cast Dr. Oz claimed

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.

Nev­er mind the only sci­ent­ists say­ing that were ones paid by a com­pany that pro­duces green-cof­fee ex­tract. After the broad­cast, Oz’s like­ness has ap­peared on count­less Web ad­vert­ise­ments for products that in­cluded the in­gredi­ent.

In a busi­ness sense, Oz doesn’t en­dorse these products, and has fought back against com­pan­ies us­ing his im­age and words on ad­vert­ising. But still, they pro­lif­er­ate. Last month, the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion brought suit against a green-cof­fee ex­tract com­pany for bogus weight-loss claims, which in­cluded Oz’s “mir­acle” en­dorse­ment. A 2013 New York­er pro­file was par­tic­u­larly scath­ing in its cri­ti­cism of Oz’s sci­entif­ic scru­tiny. “By freely mix­ing al­tern­at­ives with proven ther­apies, Oz makes it nearly im­possible for the view­er of his show to as­sess the im­pact of either; the pro­cess just di­min­ishes the value of sci­ence.”

On Tues­day, Oz was on Cap­it­ol Hill to testi­fy on a Sen­ate hear­ing about such weight loss scams, and to ad­dress his role in provid­ing fod­der for false ad­vert­ise­ments.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, Oz was adam­ant that he is not in­volved in the sale of any nu­tri­tion­al sup­ple­ment, and said he has stopped us­ing over­blown words like “mir­acle” on his pro­gram. But Oz de­murred in an­swer­ing Mc­Caskill’s ques­tions, which in­cluded the equally sharp “why would you cheapen your show by say­ing things like that?” and the as­ser­tion that “the sci­entif­ic com­munity is al­most mono­lith­ic against you.”

Here’s his de­fense.

If I can just get across the big mes­sage that I do per­son­ally be­lieve in the items I talk about in my show. I pas­sion­ately study them. I re­cog­nize that of­ten­times they don’t have the sci­entif­ic muster to present as fact. But, nev­er­the­less, I give my audi­ence the ad­vice I give my fam­ily all the time. I give my fam­ily these products, spe­cific­ally the ones you men­tioned. I’m com­fort­able with that part.

I do think I made it more dif­fi­cult for the FTC. In an at­tempt to en­gage view­ers, I used flowery lan­guage. I used lan­guage that was very pas­sion­ate, but it ended up not be­ing help­ful but in­cen­di­ary. And it provided fod­der for un­scru­pu­lous ad­vert­isers… We have spe­cific­ally re­stric­ted our use of words…

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 al­tern­at­ive heal­ing tra­di­tions, for any evid­ence that might be sup­port­ive to them.

Ba­sic­ally, Oz is say­ing that even if the sci­ence is du­bi­ous, if he be­lieves in the “thumb­nail sketch” of the pre­lim­in­ary evid­ence, he’ll present it to view­ers as a solu­tion to a prob­lem. In turn, if that solu­tion works for the view­er, it might just mo­tiv­ate them to seek oth­er healthy solu­tions.

But it isn’t sci­ence. And giv­en his vis­ib­il­ity in homes across the coun­try. Busi­nesses will be sure to con­tin­ue to use his not-quite-sci­entif­ic en­dorse­ments to sell products.

COR­REC­TION: This post ini­tially mis­stated Sen. Mc­Caskill’s role on the com­mit­tee.

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