Putting the squeeze on Lap-Band ads
December 20, 2011
County supervisors squared off Tuesday with promoters of the Lap-Band, featured on billboards all over Southern California but drawing increasing attention from officials concerned that the publicity blitz is obscuring a wide range of medical dangers.
After a series of sharp exchanges with representatives of 1-800 GET THIN, supervisors approved a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Zev Yaroslavsky to bring greater scrutiny to Lap-Band marketing and procedures. They directed county staff to, among other things, “develop a plan to identify medical products and services that are being marketed in a dangerously misleading manner.”
The supervisors’ action comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently sent letters to eight Southern California weight loss clinics and the 1-800 GET THIN marketing firm, warning that the company’s ubiquitous advertisements do not provide enough information about the risks of gastric bypass surgery or about the need to change eating behavior to lose weight over the long term.
“The FDA’s warnings raise significant concerns about the vulnerability of all County residents to these advertisements, particularly those who suffer from morbid obesity and wish to find a cure,” the motion said. “Medical experts and the FDA agree that the Lap-Band procedure is an aggressive treatment for obesity and should only be considered in clinically severe obesity cases.”
Robert Silverman, the president of 1-800 GET THIN, told supervisors that his firm is taking steps to bring its billboards and radio and TV spots into compliance with the FDA requirements. An attorney for the company said its surgery centers “have a better track record than just about anybody else.”
But supervisors were openly frustrated as they tried to find out more about how 1-800 GET THIN operates, in terms of referrals to clinics and responsibility for disclosing risks to potential clients.
“It’s been a long time since a witness or member of the public has come to that table and has obfuscated as consistently and persistently as you have today,” Yaroslavsky told the 1-800 GET THIN representatives. “I did not come here as a person who had any fundamental suspicion one way or the other about what you were doing. I leave here now thinking you are hiding something.”
The FDA’s action was prompted by Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, the county’s top public health official, who last year asked the agency to investigate whether widespread Lap-Band promotion by 1-800 GET THIN was misleading.
The motion approved by supervisors Tuesday directed the Public Health Department to report back on what it is doing to get the word out about “safe and effective alternative methods to achieve and maintain a healthier weight.”
“There is no panacea for obesity, including the Lap-Band weight loss procedure,” the motion said. “However, there are proven strategies, when sustained over time, which can help people achieve a healthier weight, and decrease the risk for diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases.”
The motion also directed the County Counsel to provide legal options on steps the county could take to “ensure truthful advertising of aggressive obesity treatment procedures in unincorporated areas.” And it instructed the Chief Executive Office to pursue legislation to increase supervision and oversight of clinics that perform “aggressive and invasive obesity treatment cosmetic procedures.”