To the skeptical, Andrew Weil, Mehmet Oz, Joe Mercola, and Deepak Chopra, have an unsavory commonality with people like Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, and “The Reverend” Jim Bakker. They all offer tales of miraculous healings while peddling something seemingly too good to be true. Appealing to the naive in order to sell alternative health products like special vitamins, books or shows that promote unproven products like green coffee beans, is a very lucrative business, and many a fortune has been made doing it. So while they earn millions of dollars and achieve celebrity status, honest religious leaders and physicians watch with disappointment as these dubious salesmen separate the innocent from their savings.
I was searching cable the other night when I came across Larry King, who now promotes a product called Omega XL. Larry tells the audience, “I get up in the morning to put on my socks, to bend over and put them on, I used to have pain. I don’t have it anymore.” Viewers are asked to trust the opinion of Larry King instead of a real scientific study. Whether it’s Larry promoting Omega XL, Mehmet Oz promoting green coffee beans, or Joe Mercola’s claims about the supplements he sells, the best they can do is to ask you to trust them or their paid spokesperson. Sure, sometimes they’ll mention something about testing on animals or on patients, but they can’t show you a study that was vetted by real doctors and scientists and published in a peer review journal. And yet millions of people trust these personalities instead of physicians who truly care for them and follow well established treatments.
Some reading this might suspect I’m an advocate for the pharmaceutical industry, but if you read my book, “What Your Doctor Won’t (or Can’t) Tell You,” or my articles on Big Pharma’s products, you’ll surely conclude that I am no fan of Big Pharma. Sadly, I seem to have attracted attention from some very kind, but poorly informed people, who appropriately distrust the huge prescription drug industry, but make the false assumption that I am therefore an advocate for alternative medicine. I am not and folks that push alternative products like green coffee, colon cleansing, special vitamins, or “miracle” Garcinia Cambogia berries, to name just a few, are not promoting good health either. Actually, I detest these smooth-talking “health experts” who have the same MO as Jim and Tammy Bakker, who market nothing but fool’s panaceas. As untrustworthy as Big Pharma is, they at least produce many products that help people, and they are policed, to a degree, by the FDA. Alternative health potions and pills help virtually no one and receive little if any review process from any regulatory agency — but they make the manufacturers mountains of money.
There is one simple test for most treatments in medicine and if you follow this rule, whether it’s a drug from Big Pharma, or some magic pill sold on TV, you will save yourself from false hope and an extra credit card bill. The only drug, vitamin or mystical potion that is likely to help you is one that has been studied in a large clinical trial, typically at multiple accredited sites and hospitals, and was compared to a placebo , where neither the human patient nor physician knew what the subject was receiving. This type of study is known as a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. If Larry King, Mehmet Oz, or anyone else for that matter, can’t produce that study, then don’t buy the products they’re hawking until they do.
Larry King, as I wrote, promotes Omega XL and I guess people are listening to him and buying this product. But they’re not listening to the medical experts, and the makers of Omega-XL (a company that goes by the name Great Healthworks), can’t show you one double-blinded, randomized trial demonstrating any benefits from their product against a placebo. And… they don’t have to tell you that the authors of a study that reviewed several trials on Omega products, published in JAMA in 2013 wrote:
In conclusion, omega-3 PUFAs are not statistically significantly associated with major cardiovascular outcomes across various patient populations. Our findings do not justify the use of omega-3 as a structured intervention in everyday clinical practice or guidelines supporting dietary omega-3 PUFA administration.
Are those who purchase this product on the word of Larry King being foolish when they ignore the findings of real physicians who have no reason to lie about the product’s efficacy? What they do say, and place in their ads, in the finest of print, as most makers of snake oil products do, is the following: “*The statements made on our websites have not been evaluated by the FDA [U.S. Food & Drug Administration]. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Joe Theisman, the pitchman for Super Beta Prostate, makes claims, as the company does, that taking their product will result in “fewer bathroom trips, sleep more through the night, support more complete bladder emptying, and make you feel younger and energetic.” But again, in the finest of print the company adds this : “*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” They also claim to have shipped over 6 million bottles of something that , according to the company that makes and sells this stuff, “is not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” Where is PT Barnum now?
When you watch the quacks selling their books or health products you will commonly find them substituting the personal experience of a paid spokesperson for any real clinical data. Physicians I work with, including some who have worked with Dr. Oz, are appalled when a hitherto brilliant surgeon like Mehmet Oz tells his devoted viewers that green coffee beans or some miracle fruit will take off that unwanted weight.
On his show, “The Dr. Oz Show”, Dr. Oz clearly promotes supplements that include Garcinia Cambogia and green coffee extract. He claims that green coffee extract is “one of the most important discoveries I believe we’ve made that will help you burn fat.” (Dr. Oz, September 10, 2012, Episode The Fat Burner that Works). But Dr. Oz fails to mention that the study was done on only 16 patients, in India, and that the results were considered a sham by many. Dr. Oz knows, I believe, that these trial results are not from a study that he or any good clinician would consider reliable enough to justify the statement he made. When he touts the benefits of Garcinia Cambogia, he presents the audience with someone who lost weight, as they claim, by using his “miracle”product. But he also fails to mention trial data that refutes those claims, and that includes the largest randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on the ingredients found in Garcinia Cambogia, published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study concluded that this supposed miracle supplement was no better than a placebo in helping patients lose weight. The authors of this study were so convinced of the lack of benefit that they concluded:
Our findings, obtained in a prospective, randomized, double-blind study, failed to detect either weight loss or fat-mobilizing effects of hydroxycitric acid beyond those of placebo. These observations, the first, to our knowledge, to appear in a peer-reviewed article using currently accepted experimental and statistical methods, do not support a role as currently prescribed for the widely used herb G cambogia as a facilitator of weight loss.
For many like myself who know Mehmet Oz, (I recognize how smart, knowledgeable, and assiduous he is), it’s disturbing that he does not mention any alternative opinions or studies that challenge the efficacy of the product. This is not some retired athlete, news anchor, or forgotten celebrity, but someone who must know there are legitimate, scientifically sound studies debunking the usefulness of the product and yet, that seems to be ignored; perhaps because it might diminish the spectacle that his show has become.
To many of us it seems that Dr. Oz has followed a path similar to that of Anakin Skywalker and has turned to the dark side to fill up air time and his pockets. In general, no matter what claims are made about any product sold on TV, I suggest you attempt to read the disclaimer (usually printed in a font smaller than a mite), or just assume that most people who took that pill didn’t lose weight, or feel better, or urinate less often.
When you see the marketing of any health related products on television, especially by some has-been entertainer or retired athlete, you can assume they are lying to you as Jimmy Swaggart did to his followers. If you can’t resist the temptation to watch an infomercial, watch it as if it were a skit on the old Second City TV of SNL– it’s just comedy and nothing more. And isn’t it ridiculous that anyone would accept the opinions of Joe Theismann or Larry King when it comes to health issues? Would you consult them about heart surgery or chemotherapy? Of course not! Who would?
Weight loss formulas, herbal prostate medications, colon cleansers, and testosterone raising supplements are likely to be worthless to you and gold to the con artists that sell them. Follow a very simple rule: Don’t buy any health product you see sold on television. And if you cannot follow this golden rule, at least discuss how you wish to throw your money away with your physician or pharmacist. If your physician or pharmacist is selling any of these products, return to the golden rule.
While I offer no excuse for these former celebrities (whose agents likely got them a paying gig to hawk these products), I must place the doctors, who have the knowledge and experience to know that what they are selling is worthless at best and maybe harmful , in the same category as smooth talking, slippery televangelists.
About the author: Evan S. Levine, MD FACC, is Director of the Cardiovascular Center at Saint Joseph’s Hospital and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center – Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is also the author of the book “What Your Doctor Won’t (or can’t) Tell You”. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.