The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a fake doctor made millions from ‘the Dr. Oz Effect’ and a bogus weight-loss supplement

A recent study by the British Medical Journal says half of the claims Dr. Mehmet Oz makes on his popular television show are not backed up by medical science. Here are some examples from recent episodes of "The Dr. Oz Show" - claiming "revolutionary miracles." (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

When Lindsey Duncan appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” in 2012, he was introduced as a “naturopathic doctor” and a certified nutritionist. Lindsey prefers to use the term “celebrity nutritionist,” but that didn’t really matter, because he was there to tout the green coffee bean extract, a “new” supplement that, he claimed, “the medical community, the weight-loss community” was all buzzing about.

But Duncan wouldn’t necessarily know anything about the chatter in the medical community, because he is no doctor.

In announcing a $9 million settlement with Duncan this week, the Federal Trade Commission more accurately labeled him a “marketer” who skillfully manipulated the so-called “Oz Effect” to sell a bogus product that he claimed resulted in unbelievable weight loss results.

The settlement comes just a few months after the Texas attorney general charged Duncan with deceiving the public for purporting to be a naturopathic doctor. Duncan, the state charged, used a degree from a now-defunct and unaccredited “distance-learning” natural health college whose degrees are illegal to use in Texas.

In reality, Duncan was a marketing executive of two companies, Genesis Today and Pure Health, which advertised and sold green coffee bean extract. Their moneymaking scheme, however, was only possible with the help of Mehmet Oz’s increasingly maligned self-help show.

“We are working on a segment about the weight loss benefits of green coffee bean and I was hoping that Lindsey Duncan might be available to be our expert,” wrote one of Oz’s producers in an April 12 e-mail to Duncan’s staff. “Has he studied green coffee bean at all? Would he be able to talk about how it works?”

In fact, Duncan didn’t know anything about green coffee bean extract prior to receiving the e-mail, but a member of his team eagerly agreed that he would appear on the show. “Awesome! Thanks for reaching out, Dr. Lindsey does have knowledge of the Green Coffee Bean. He loves it!” came the reply a few hours later, according to court documents in the case.

The operation then sprang into action. That same day, Duncan’s staff contacted the manufacturer and placed a wholesale order for green coffee bean extract so that they could begin producing and selling the product.

[Dr. Oz solicits health questions on Twitter, gets attacked by trolls instead]

As Duncan prepared for the show’s taping, his staff made sure to insert lines in the script specifying exactly how much of the extract people should take in order to lose weight. They also inserted lines instructing viewers to find the extract online by searching for “Pure Green Coffee Bean Capsules” — a search term they would later use to direct people to Web sites where they sold the extract, according to documents.

During the taping, Dr. Oz nodded along with Duncan’s pseudoscience gibberish, according to a transcript that was included in court documents.

Dr. Oz: So, how does it work?
Duncan: Well, it’s amazing. It’s what we call the triple threat. Okay, and it’s the chlorogenic acid that causes the effect, and it works three ways. The first way is it goes in and it causes the body to burn glucose or sugar and burn fat, mainly in the liver. The second way, and the most important way, is it slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream, so when you don’t have sugar building up in the bloodstream you don’t have fat building up because sugar turns to fat. And everybody must remember that.
Dr. Oz: Right.


There was then, and there is now, no scientific evidence that green coffee bean extract promotes weight loss.

The FTC has been on the trail of the weight-loss scam for months. The agency’s actions have so far has resulted in the retraction of a bogus scientific study claiming that green coffee bean extract promotes unbelievable weight loss results with no diet and exercise, and a $3.5 million settlement against the company that manufactured the supplement.

Now comes the biggest settlement of all: The $9 million case against Duncan and his companies, which the FTC said made “millions” off green coffee bean extract thanks to a steroid shot of publicity from Dr. Oz.

Between the taping and the time the show aired, Oz’s producers e-mailed Duncan to ask whether he had a preferred green coffee extract supplier.

Why yes, in fact, he did!

“This is either a set up or manna from the heavens,” Duncan e-mailed to his staff, which attempted to conceal his connection to the company from consumers and from the Oz show, according to documents. “Please get Green Coffee Bean up on our site immediately!!!”

The staff pointed Oz’s producers to, a site they had created to sell the green coffee bean extract product they had just started to manufacture. They quickly executed a strategy to pump up the search value for their site by purchasing Google Adwords and setting up “fake” sites that led consumers back to their company.

Then, touting the supplement’s appearance on “The Dr. Oz Show,” Duncan’s companies began pitching the product to retailers including Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.

“We just left a taping at the Dr. Oz show today, and Dr. Lindsey unveiled a new supplement that millions of Americans are going to want when this show airs in 2 weeks, and we have a product developed and ready to produce for Dept. 82 at Walmart,” one of Duncan’s employees e-mailed to a Wal-Mart representative. “You are probably aware of the ‘Oz Effect,’ this will be the Oz Effect on steroids!”

The accusations go on and on.

[Half of Dr. Oz’s medical advice is baseless or wrong, study says]

As the last several months of FTC actions and this most recent cache of documents have revealed a cottage industry that grew and thrived thanks to Oz’s dubious endorsements.

“Lindsey Duncan and his companies made millions by falsely claiming that green coffee bean supplements cause significant and rapid weight loss,” Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “This case shows that the Federal Trade Commission will continue to fight deceptive marketers’ attempts to prey on consumers trying to improve their health.”

Duncan and his companies have been ordered to pay $5 million within two weeks of the court’s approval. The order also requires Duncan and his companies to substantiate any weight-loss claims in the future with at least two “well-controlled” human clinical trials — and it bans them from making false claims about the benefits of a product by claiming that they are scientifically proven when, in fact, they are not.

Meanwhile, “The Dr. Oz Show” is still on the air, despite his association with numerous debunked weight-loss products. A recent study found that half of the medical advice he dispenses is baseless or wrong.

And Oz has recently began clearing some of the biggest offenders — including green coffee bean extract — from his Web site, in the midst of the glut of negative attention.

Yet instead of issuing an apology to his viewers, Oz has attributed to the dust-up to the whims of “science.”

“In prior seasons, we covered Green Coffee Extract and its potential as a useful tool for weight loss,” a statement on Oz’s site reads. “Recently the authors of the peer reviewed research paper on which our coverage had been partially based formally retracted their study. While this sometimes happens in scientific research, it indicates that further study is needed regarding any potential benefits of Green Coffee Extract.”