A federal agency that protects consumers has gone after a guest on the Dr. Oz Show for false and misleading marketing practices, leading to a $9-million settlement yesterday.
Documents filed by Federal Trade Commission lawyers reveal an elaborate scam by Lindsey Duncan — a Dr. Oz guest and supposed nutrition expert — to hawk weight-loss aids, including green coffee bean supplements, in which he had a financial stake.
The FTC complaint offers a behind-the-scenes look at the anatomy of a Dr. Oz Show appearance. The details may seem stranger than fiction, but they’re all fact, and should make you think twice about the health advice featured on the program.
He's not a doctor but he plays one on TV
The story began when an Oz Show producer contacted Duncan’s PR people, asking whether he knew anything about green coffee bean supplements.
Duncan is an interesting character. A naturopathic doctor and "celebrity nutritionist," he refers to himself as "one of the world’s leading experts on superfoods, herbal medicine, natural remedies and natural health."
He's also an old-fashioned snake-oil salesman. He uses the honorific "Dr.," regularly dons lab coats, and talks up his clinical experience to sell his unproven nutrition products.
For these "misleading" and "deceptive" acts, he has been sued by the attorney general's office in his home state, Texas. That's because Duncan only has "alleged degrees" in naturopathy from the non-accredited, distance-learning college that was "named on a list posted by The Higher Education Coordination Board of 'Institutions Whose Degrees Are Illegal to Use in Texas.'"
Still, for the Dr. Oz Show producers, he was a suitable nutrition authority. "We are working on a segment about the weight loss benefits of green coffee bean," a Dr. Oz producer wrote, "and I was hoping that Lindsey Duncan might be available to be our expert. Has he studied green coffee bean at all? Would he be able to talk about how it works?"
The anatomy of the Dr. Oz Show
According to the FTC's lawyers, at that time, Duncan knew nothing about the supposed weight-loss benefits of green coffee bean extract. The companies he had a stake in — Genesis Today and Pure Health — didn’t sell the product. Still, within hours, Duncan’s PR team replied, "Awesome! Thanks for reaching out, Dr. Lindsey does have knowledge of the Green Coffee Bean. He loves it!"
That's when Duncan's scam starts to take shape. Later that day, his companies began buying up green coffee bean supplements.
The Dr. Oz producer then called Duncan for a pre-interview, and that evening, shared with him a "very rough outline of the script" for segment. The script included questions Duncan might be faced with on the show, but also Dr. Oz’s introduction:
"You may think magic is make believe — but this bean (hold coffee bean) has scientists saying . . . they found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type. As a supplement, this miracle pill can burn fat fast! It’s green coffee beans. For those with fat all over and anyone who wants to lose weight — this is very exciting — breaking news!"
The producer allowed Duncan to edit the script, writing the very words Oz would utter on the show. Duncan added language that "would advise viewers that they could find green coffee bean capsules online by typing the words ‘Pure Green Coffee Bean Capsules’ into their web browsers… [He also] added language in which Duncan would advise viewers to ‘take two 400 mg vegetarian capsules,'" according to the FTC.
The Dr. Oz producer followed up with Duncan, asking whether he could recommend a particular brand of green coffee bean supplement.
Duncan didn’t reply right away. Instead, he emailed his employees: "This is either a set up or manna from the heavens . . . Please get Green Coffee Bean up on our site immediately!!! I will then recco the PH site!!!!! Let me know when it’s up!"
A magical weight-loss bean
Duncan and his team began offering green supplements on the www.purehealth100.com website. The next day, they directed the Dr. Oz Show producer to the site.
He claimed that he "did some research" and found that "[w]hen you type ‘green coffee beans’ into your web browser . . . . [t]he one Company that pops up selling a pill or supplement is www.purehealth100.com."
There’s more: Duncan also gamed Google in time for his Oz appearance, buying a bunch of AdWords related to green coffee beans. This meant that when people typed in phrases related to the supplements, they would be directed to his websites.
In a final, deceptive flourish, Duncan used his TV appearance to sell his green coffee bean supplements to retailers, such as Walmart.
Before the show aired, Duncan wrote a contact at Walmart saying, "I am flying to NYC on Monday to appear on The Dr. Oz Show again where I will be presenting to Dr. Oz and the U.S. public the recent clinical trials that demonstrate that Green Coffee Bean (must be green and cannot be roasted) can produce significant weight loss in all subjects with zero exercise and zero changes in one’s diet."
The "Oz effect"
On the episode, Duncan made incredible claims about green coffee beans that no one could resist: the supplements, he said, would cause major weight and fat loss, including 17 pounds in 12 weeks and 16 percent of body fat — without diet or exercise. He said all this was based on science, even though the science was very flimsy and has since been retracted. (The study he touted is the subject of another, big FTC settlement).
After the episode taping, one of Duncan's employees emailed a contact at Walmart again: "We just left a taping at the Dr. Oz show today, and Dr. Lindsey unveiled a new supplement that millions of Americans are going to want when this show airs in 2 weeks, and we have a product developed and ready to produce for Dept. 82 at Walmart. You are probably aware of the ‘Oz Effect,’ this will be the Oz Effect on steroids!"
The scheme worked and the 'Oz effect' was indeed real. Duncan and the other stakeholders in his companies have sold $50-million worth of green coffee-bean products to date.
A $50 million scam
Of course, Duncan never disclosed his financial conflicts of interest. According to the FTC complaint, the Oz show had no idea about the machinery behind Duncan’s campaign. (We asked them for comment but they did not reply by deadline.)
Duncan was given an incredible platform — and access to Oz’s lips through his script — to essentially lie to millions of Americans to the tune of $50 million.
An unnamed spokesperson for one of the companies implicated in the FTC suit told Reuters, "We decided to settle with the FTC. ... It's a no-fault settlement. We don't admit any wrongdoing." The spokesperson said Duncan left the company in 2014, after his Oz Show cameos.
The green coffee bean incident wasn’t isolated. He set up the same marketing machinery in time for an appearance on the Dr. Oz Show to discuss black raspberry as a "top cancer-fighting supplement," the FTC said. And Duncan has appeared on other national programs, such as The View and Fox & Friends.
The Oz show should have done its due diligence before handing their platform over to Duncan and presenting him to their audience as a nutrition expert. They told Reuters in a statement, "The Dr. Oz Show will retain its eternal vigilance in vetting guests so they meet highest standards."
Clearly, at least when it came to Duncan's appearances, they didn't, and this should be a reminder to think twice before you act on health advice you see on TV.
If you bought green coffee bean supplements and want to get your money back, you can go to the Ftc.gov website and file an online complaint.
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