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The Big Squeeze: Calif. Weight Loss Clinics Under Investigation

A group of weight-loss clinics in Southern California is under fire for an aggressive advertising campaign and the death of five patients.

The 1-800-GET-THIN marketing campaign and its affiliated surgical centers are being investigated by local, state and federal agencies, including Congress.

If you travel Los Angeles freeways you've undoubtedly seen the billboards advertising the weight loss Lap-Band device. The group also has a catching ad jingle, which is even available as a phone ringtone.

The ubiquitous ad campaign and the surgeons affiliated with it are under intense scrutiny. At least three wrongful death lawsuits have been filed, and the Los Angeles County Coroner is investigating one of the deaths. And according to a spokesman at the California Department of Insurance, the agency has initiated an investigation into allegations of insurance fraud.

Mona Misra is a bariatric surgeon at L.A.'s Cedars Sinai Hospital. She says she's glad regulators are looking into the practices, but she says many of her patients are getting the wrong message.

"For a lot of patients, the band might be the perfect operation for them and we don't want them to be afraid of it because they think that it is such a dangerous operation," Misra says.

The Lap-Band is a small, surgically-implanted silicone ring that, when inflated, restricts part of the stomach so only a small amount of food can get in.

Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district covers much of Los Angeles, says he wants more regulatory oversight of the Lap-Band.

"Here you have an outfit that is putting up billboards urging people to get this Lap-Band product, and they're not giving people all the information that they are entitled to have about the risk, cautions and possible side effects," Waxman says.

The Food and Drug Administration recently sent a warning letter to the 1-800-GET-THIN marketers ordering them to include more prominent safety warnings. The group's website now has disclaimers, but an FDA spokeswoman said the agency could not comment whether the marketers had fully complied with the warning. She would only say that firms are expected to correct violations, and failure to do so may result in enforcement action.

Those new disclaimers are too little and too late for Alexander Robertson, a lawyer who has brought five different lawsuits, including two wrongful death claims, against the 1-800-GET-THIN marketers and its affiliated surgeons.

"They really preyed on a very susceptible group of the population that obviously would like to look like those skinny beautiful people on the billboards and were told it this is a safe one hour procedure," Robertson says. "You come in and get it done and you are going to be thin right away."

A lawyer for the surgical centers and others affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN declined to be interviewed. But he did send a written statement denying all allegations against his clients and touted "the success we have achieved in improving the quality of life of thousands of patients."

Meanwhile for years Allergan, the manufacturer of the Lap-Band, continued selling the device to surgeons affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN campaign. Earlier this month the company reversed that stance and announced that they would no longer sell to Top Surgeons, Inc, which is affiliated with the controversial ad campaign. A spokeswoman for the company would not elaborate why the decision to halt sales was made.

Scott Cunneen the head of Bariatric Surgery at Cedars Sinai, applauds the move. He and 29 other doctors recently sent a letter to members of congress denouncing the approach to anti-obesity treatment used by the 1-800-GET-THIN surgical centers. Cuneen says he fears Congress will crack down on the use of the Lap-Band instead of monitoring surgeons who he says, improperly use it.

"We hope that Congress regulates the practices and the facilities in such a way that the safety is maintained and doesn't condemn the whole category of therapy," says Cunneen, who insists that surgery, when performed properly and marketed truthfully, is the best and most effective way to combat obesity.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.