Opportunism, Charlatanism, and Obesity

Snake oil

2014 was a big year for what William Anderson calls “weight loss quackery,”  with the government making four companies promise $34 million in refunds to customers. Their previous promises, made on behalf of their products, involved the fast and effortless removal of fat from the customers’ bodies. For instance, the HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotropin) diet combined the hormone, administered intramuscularly or sublingually, with a 500-calorie-per-day diet, and helped people lose weight. Of course, combined with such a skimpy caloric intake, a daily dose of normal saline solution would have the same result.

A chain of skin product boutiques known as L’Occitane sold plenty of what must be the hundredth iteration of another scam — a product that only had to be rubbed onto the body to melt away fat. With “clinically proven slimming effectiveness” it would “visibly reduce the appearance of cellulite.” Uh-huh. Another company,Sensa Products, went broke, and was only able to repay a small fraction of the $364 million it made by selling a product people would sprinkle on their food to allegedly lose 30 pounds.

A company called LeanSpa perpetrated “the largest natural food products fraud ever,” by pushing acai berries and colon cleansing on a series of “fake news websites” the company created. About any prospect of improvement in the field, Anderson is not optimistic. He says:

The FTC has been catching these frauds for years. They just pop back up the next year with new gimmicks with new names and sales pitches.

Coincidentally, his recommendation of acai berries was one reason why Dr. Mehmet Oz was scolded by U.S. Senators at a hearing held by a subcommittee concerned with consumer protection. Nearly a decade of television presence has made Dr. Oz a trusted figure. Critics suggest he may not deserve such trust. Sen. Claire McCaskill derided his blend of news, entertainment, and medical advice as misleading and harmful, saying:

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.

The problem is that whenever the popular TV advisor mentions a generic product, like acai berries, unscrupulous manufacturers publish ads claiming that he endorses their particular brand. Rather than encouraging them, Dr. Oz says he has even sued companies for using his image and name to promote their brands — to no avail.

One Natural Foods Con Artist Down; Hundreds to Go

As con artists go, Charles Davis is probably pretty typical. In 2007 and 2008 the California man raised more than $2 million from 40 people who thought they were investing in a product that would treat childhood obesity. Also, they were promised that in just over a year, they would get a 15 percent return on their money.

Late in 2011 Davis was sent to prison, and then tried again last summer on additional charges resulting from another venture — a company making a product called DT2 that would treat Type II diabetes. That scam affected only 25 investors and took in under a million dollars, which Davis used for personal expenses, including attorney fees to defend against the original charges. In June he was convicted of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering, which reporter Matt Coker noted could earn him as much as 240 years in prison. Apparently the sentencing, scheduled for October, was delayed, because no information is available on how that turned out.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “ 4 Top Weight Loss Scams of the Year (So Far),” HuffingtonPost.com, 01/29/2014
Source: “The ‘Dr. Oz Effect’: Senators Scold Mehmet Oz For Diet Scams,” NBCNews, 06/17/14
Source: “Investment Scam,” OCWeekly.com, 06/24/14
Image by Wesley Fryer

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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