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How 'The Dr. Oz Effect' Has Hooked American Consumers

A health-product boom dubbed “The Dr. Oz Effect” is an offshoot of televangelism fueled by a surgeon's camera-friendly sway, critics claim.
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Senators criticized Dr. Mehmet Oz during a hearing on false diet-product ads on Tuesday –- but does the nation’s most telegenic doctor have any control over the “Dr. Oz Effect” lawmakers say contributes to a whole market of sometimes questionable health products?

According to other physicians who monitor the Dr. Oz brand, the sales pattern is now well worn. On air, Oz talks up certain foods, drinks, supplements or other products –- often with little science to support them.

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Soon, online entrepreneurs are pitching –- apparently without the doctor’s approval –- Oz’s quotations as out-right endorsements, hawking alleged cures to anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card, including white mulberry, red palm oil, and brown seaweed. The products are often promised to slash pounds, shed years, boost sleep or conquer the flu, among other claims.

On Tuesday, during a Senate hearing on false diet-product ads, senators chided Oz for indirectly perpetuating ad scams. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, cited several examples. Oz called green coffee extract a “magic weight loss cure.” Raspberry ketone was “the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat.” He said Garcina cambogia “may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

McCaskill told Oz: “When you feature a product on your show it creates what has become known as the ‘Dr. Oz Effect’ — dramatically boosting sales and driving scam artists to pop up overnight using false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products.”

NBC News requested an interview Wednesday with Oz, who also is vice-chairman of the department of surgery at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

Oz referred NBC News to a statement he released after the hearing: “I was pleased that the hearing today dealt with some complicated issues and had all the players present whose cooperation will be necessary to move forward in protecting the consumer. For years I felt that because I did not sell any products that I could be enthusiastic in my coverage and I believe the research surrounding the products I cover has value.

“I took part in today's hearing because I am accountable for my role in the proliferation of these scams and I recognize that my enthusiastic language has made the problem worse at times,” Oz added in his statement. “To not have the conversation about supplements at all however would be a disservice to the viewer. In addition to exercising an abundance of caution in discussing promising research and products in the future, I look forward to working with all those present today in finding a way to deal with the problems of weight loss scams.”

Oprah Winfrey was the first person to dub Oz — then a frequent guest on her program — “America’s doctor.” Today, the Emmy Award-winning “Dr. Oz Show” is one of the top-rated daily TV programs in the country, and Oz has authored a series of books, all of it turning him into a medical-media franchise.

But some other doctors are not buying the latest pitch from Oz.

“He’s well aware that these companies are promoting things without any evidence of (benefits), but he doesn’t do anything to preempt it,” said Dr. Eric J. Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California.

“He can claim it’s all done unwittingly, or unknowingly, and that these things are being taken out of context. But his own shows demonstrate that is not that case,” Topol added. “This has been perpetuated for a long time. These things he calls 'miracles,' for example. What do you think is going to happen when you call something a miracle and there is absolutely no evidence?”

The real magic, Topol said, is the size of Oz’s viewing audience. For years, scientifically unproven products were peddled on late-night infomercials, seen by a few bleary-eyed insomniacs. But Oz, he said, has “taken it to an uber level of dissemination that wasn’t possible before.”

“He does sometimes seem like a televangelist,” added Dr. David Gorski, assistant professor of surgery at Wayne State University.

“A lot of it just has to do with his gushing over a product. People seem to believe Dr. Oz. I don't know why, but they do,” Gorski said. “Any product that there’s a hunger for –- if you have millions of viewers every day, and if you’ve built up this brand, quote-unquote America’s doctor -– you’re going to get people wanting to buy whatever it is you say is great.”

Through his initial affiliation with Oprah’s TV show, Oz has slowly built his name and stature in front of TV cameras as a doctor and heart surgeon, Gorski said.

“So he has a lot of reasons for people to trust him. He’s very telegenic. It’s not just the size of the audience. It’s also his personality,” Gorski said.

Oz told senators that he avoided endorsing specific brands –- and that had been the biggest disservice to his audience. As a result, a marketplace would spring up with “fake stuff, real stuff, it doesn't frankly matter and start to use my name to start to sell.”

But Oz does endorse certain brands and products as well. On his website, he lists six “trusted partners:” Aquaphor, Eucerin, Metamucil, Omron, Schiff and Walgreens.

On air, he also has openly showcased some products.

In an episode devoted to relaxation drinks, one close-up camera shot showed five cans of beverages that claim to help people calm down.

Soon, on the Internet, a “liquid sleep aid” called iChill boasted: “Dr. Oz is talking about a new way to wind down with relaxation drinks. They are the newest trend in helping you relax and calm down and the best news is they contain natural ingredients already known to promote relaxation.”

To the point made by Oz, iChill was not one of the drinks featured on that episode.