Dr. Oz's hydroxychloroquine advocacy seduces Trump as coronavirus wellness woo surges

Celebrity health advice was mostly bunk before this pandemic emerged. It is bunk now. And it will be bunk after the crisis passes.
Image: Dr. Oz visits the Fox News Channel Studios in New York on March 9, 2020.
Dr. Oz visits the Fox News Channel Studios in New York on March 9, 2020.Roy Rochlin / Getty Images; NBC News
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By Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta

Over the past decade, celebrity wellness brands have helped to frame how we talk and think about health. But now that we are in the grip of a deadly pandemic, their shameless marketing of healing crystals, supplements and cleanses (aka unhealthy crash diets) comes across as especially ludicrous and exploitative. Now more than ever, the public wants and needs good science from trusted sources.

In some ways it feels like the volume has been turned down on the celebrity wellness pontificators. But in reality, they are still playing a large and less-than-constructive role in the public discourse.

In some ways it feels like the volume has been turned down on the celebrity wellness pontificators. (Indeed, Gwyneth Paltrow's pseudoscience spewing Netflix show, "The Goop Lab," debuted just three months ago but already feels like it is from a different, more New Age-friendly, epoch.) But in reality, they are still playing a large and less-than-constructive role in the public discourse surrounding COVID-19. Arguably, they are actually making things worse than they were before the public health crisis.

Take Dr. (Mehmet) Oz. The celebrity surgeon is suddenly everywhere, especially on Fox News, where he has been (mis)advising America and President Donald Trump on hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that the president has been pushing as a treatment for the coronavirus, despite the many concerns of health professionals. Touting the unproven benefits of the drug without talking about the mixed science and its potentially deadly side effects is "inexcusable," a Mayo Clinic heart expert told NBC News recently.

This hasn't stopped Oz, however. On Thursday, he promoted a "self-reported" hydroxychloroquine clinical trial on Fox News without the vital caveat that it was designed only for patients so sick that they were already near death. And that this type of research is far from definitive (we need well-done clinical trials). It is exactly this kind of irresponsible commentary that led to a man to mistakenly ingest chloroquine phosphate (thinking it would prevent the coronavirus) and die. (Oz also implied reopening schools could lead to people dying but might be an acceptable "trade-off" — he later said he "misspoke.")

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Elsewhere, actor Woody Harrelson and singer M.I.A. shared baseless conspiracy theories about 5G wireless technology being related to the pandemic. And weeks after countries and cities around the world where issuing stay-at-home guidance, Marvel superhero Evangeline Lilly suggested on Instagram that COVID-19 was a political power grab. This kind of celebrity nonsense may seem frivolous and fringe-y, but it matters. People are buying up the unproven malaria drug and burning down 5G cellphone towers.

And, of course, many celebrity wellness brands have done their best to remain in the public's consciousness with the singular goal of selling products and wellness philosophies.

A recent study looking at COVID-19 misinformation (the researchers looked at 225 pieces of misinformation rated false or misleading by fact checkers) found that top-down misinformation from "politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures made up just 20 percent of the claims in our sample but accounted for 69 percent of total social media engagement." So, even though celebrities may not be a principal initial source COVID-19 "infodemic" material, their words and ideas get spread around a disproportionate amount.

Thankfully, regulators are beginning to take action against some of the prominent individuals pushing bogus COVID-19 cures and treatments. The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration warned televangelist Jim Bakker to stop marketing the completely ridiculous and potentially harmful Silver Sol Liquid as a cure for the coronavirus. The FDA has also gone after conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for claiming that things like toothpaste and mouthwash can help prevent COVID-19.

This kind of legal response is great. In fact, we need more of it. But the available legal tools will never be able to catch and stop all the wellness-focused misinformation. Indeed, much of the celebrity-fueled noise won't necessarily trigger a regulatory action. Tom Brady's recent "immune boosting" advice stands as a good example of the kind science-free rhetoric that can slip through the regulatory cracks. (Disclosure: My home office includes no fewer than two Patriots football helmets, a Patriots cap, a Patriots matryoshka doll and a stuffed Tom Brady that is bigger than a midsize dog. This criticism of Brady doesn't come easy, even if he is now a Buccaneer.)

Over the past month, the star NFL quarterback has been on social media pushing advice on how we should boost our immune systems. And his wellness brand, TB12, has been marketing an "immunity boost" game plan. This is problematic on a number of levels. First, there is no evidence that food or supplements or, really, any wellness habit can "boost" your immune system in the manner suggested by Brady and the TB12 gang. The language used here is vague and wrapped in virtuous we're-all-in-this-together verbiage. It seems unlikely that regulators will view stopping Brady as a public health priority. Still, the circulation of this kind of messaging does harm, if only by legitimizing the concept — and the "illusory truth" effect can be very powerful. This in turn makes it easier for even more aggressive hucksters, like Jim Bakker, to push immunity-boosting bunk.

Second, while media outlets gave Brady's stay-at-home advice glowing coverage, he is clearly just exploiting the fear and uncertainty around the coronavirus to sell products. Again, there is no evidence that taking his products will give you extra protection against the coronavirus. In reality, as noted by Emma Laing, an associate professor and director of dietetics in the University of Georgia, "any food or supplement marketed to do so, such as vitamins, herbs, essential oils, juice cleanses or natural health products, is not evidence-based."

Of course, we are seeing similar essentially science-free immune-boosting advice (read: cynical marketing ploys) from many celeb wellness brands, including Paltrow's Goop, Jessica Alba's Honest Company and Elle Macpherson's WelleCo and, right here on NBC, Dr. Oz.

To counter this misinformation, we need creative communication strategies that use trusted science. But long term, what we really need is a collective embrace of a culture of accuracy. We need to stop enabling science-free wellness gurus with our money, clicks, shares and uncritical media attention.

We need to stop enabling science-free wellness gurus with our money, clicks, shares and uncritical media attention.

Dr. Oz rose to prominence thanks to the middle-class power of Oprah Winfrey. Now he has moved on to Fox News, a media network with a massive U.S. reach and an aging audience that are among the most vulnerable of populations. The fact that he has the uncritical ear of the president only magnifies any potential harm.

Let's hope that one of the legacies of the coronavirus crisis is a growing recognition of both the value of good science and the adverse impact that wellness woo and health misinformation can have.

Yes, there are many reasons people may be drawn to unproven wellness practices and products, including warranted frustration with the limits of and problems with the conventional health care system. And people may take comfort in the rituals associated with some of these wellness practices, especially at a time of uncertainty.

But this doesn't mean we should continue to tolerate the misleading marketing and pseudoscience pushed by the celebrity wellness gurus. Can we please use this moment to phase out the gobbledygook flowing from the Dr. Ozes, Gwyneths and, sigh, Bradys, of the wellness world? Their health advice was bunk before this pandemic emerged. It is bunk now. And it will be bunk after the crisis passes.

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