[This post has been updated.]
A company selling green coffee extract ingredients for dietary supplements paid the Federal Trade Commission $3.5 million to settle complaint that it advertised the product under specious claims that the substance promotes weight loss with or without diet and exercise.
But despite the fact that the now-discredited pills were touted by television doctor Mehmet Oz, the medical community remains silent on the problem of doctors who enable weight-loss scams.
According to the complaint, Texas-based company Applied Food Sciences promoted a study conducted by paid researchers in India, the FTC said Monday. Those "researchers" produced a deeply flawed report that falsified key information, including the duration of the trial and the weight of the subjects.
Those results were -- and still are (as of this posting) -- being touted by Dr. Oz on his TV show and online.
"You may think magic is make believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found a magic weight loss cure for every body type," Oz exclaimed in the Green Coffee Extract episode of his show. "This miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. This is very exciting and it's breaking news."
Oz touted the "staggering newly released study" that showed participants lost an "astounding" amount of fat and weight -- 17.7 pounds and 16 percent of body fat -- by doing absolutely nothing except taking the supplement.
Oz later conducted his own "study" of the product and found that participants who used the extract lost an average of two pounds in two weeks; in the group that took the placebo, people lost an average of one pound. Not exactly a startling difference, especially considering that with diet and exercise a healthy and sustainable amount of weight loss is considered to be one or two pounds per week, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Applied Food Sciences knew or should have known that this botched study didn't prove anything,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “In publicizing the results, it helped fuel the green coffee phenomenon.”
In addition to the monetary settlement, Applied Food Sciences will be required to substantiate further clinical claims with at least two controlled clinical human trials. And with an FTC settlement, the money paid by the company can be used to provide refunds to consumers who bought the product, according to an FTC spokesman.
But what of Dr. Oz, who continues to feature the product on his Web site, and who has featured other questionable weight loss gimmicks with impunity in the past?
The problem is so widespread that Oz was dragged before the Senate Commerce Committee and castigated by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for trading on the trust consumers place in him as a medical doctor to advertise products with no scientific basis.
“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true,” McCaskill said at the subcommittee hearing. "So why when you have this amazing megaphone and this amazing ability to communicate, why would you cheapen your show?"
Said Oz, in his own defense: "I actually do personally believe in the items that I talk about on the show; I passionately study them. I recognize that oftentimes they don't have the scientific muster to present as fact."
But as a medical doctor, does Oz have an ethical responsibility to present information to his patents based on scientific evidence? Time and time again the question has been asked of the American Medical Association, the national trade group that promotes the medical profession.
Earlier this year, one medical student launched a campaign calling on the Medical Society of the State of New York, where Oz is licensed, and the AMA to address medical "quackery" of the kind Oz has perfected over the years.
The AMA has yet to take a forceful stance on the issue. We reached out to the AMA in search of a comment on the FTC settlement against the green coffee extract company. We've also reached out to MSSNY and will update with any of their responses.
An AMA spokesmen told Vox in June that as a voluntary organization, it doesn't have the ability to compel its members to do anything.
"There are ethical opinions the AMA puts out that say that a physician is always going to be truthful and not going to mislead patients," the spokesman said. "We are not vested with any authority at the state or federal level."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the post referred to the $3.5 million sum as a "fine" rather than a "settlement" agreement with the FTC.