The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on a second Southern California firm it says is using misleading ads to promote Lap-Band weight-loss surgery.
The FDA sent a letter to the owners of Lap-Band VIP, warning them to change their billboard and television marketing or face disciplinary action. The allegations were similar to those the agency made in December against 1-800-GET-THIN, another company that marketed Lap-Band weight-loss surgery.
Lap-Band VIP, based in Tarzana, has promoted its weight-loss surgery on television, the Internet and freeway billboards throughout Southern California. One billboard featured a photograph of a thin woman with the pitch: “Tiffany lost over 100 lbs. Actual patient. Results may vary.”
Those ads were misleading, the FDA said in a June 25 letter, because they failed to include adequate warnings about the surgery’s risks. The agency said Lap-Band VIP “should take prompt action to correct the violations” or risk “regulatory action.”
Dr. Shahram Salimitari, a co-owner of Lap-Band VIP, said Monday that the company was responding to the FDA by pulling the billboards down. Several of the company’s billboards that lined the 5 Freeway south of downtown Los Angeles as recently as last week are now gone.
“Most of my patients come through referral,” Salimitari said. “We don’t need to advertise like that to get patients. We do it by taking care of patients.”
Lap-Band VIP says it has no relationship with 1-800-GET-THIN, which pulled most of its ads this year after investigations by regulators and a warning from the FDA.
There are some connections between the two companies. Salimitari said he used to perform Lap-Band procedures at a clinic associated with 1-800-GET-THIN. He said he left and later formed Lap-Band VIP with another surgeon, Dr. Hooman Shabatian.
Launched in 2009, Lap-Band VIP steers patients to Mount Sinai Surgery Center in Tarzana. The Lap-Band is a silicone ring surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating and help patients lose weight.
Both Lap-Band VIP and the Mount Sinai Surgery Center are in the Tarzana Financial Complex, an office building on Burbank Boulevard. The company declined to say how many surgeries it has performed.
A company official was quick to distinguish Lap-Band VIP from competitor 1-800-GET-THIN. Five patients died after Lap-Band surgery at clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN from 2009 to 2011, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.
“There have been no deaths associated with LapBandVIP.com,” Shayla Reed, the firm’s general manager, said in a statement to The Times. “LapBandVIP.com’s complication rate is less than the national average, as published in recognized medical journals.”
On its website, Lap-Band VIP says it provides “better care, better results” and uses a team of “highly trained physicians.”
However, Lap-Band VIP has had its own legal entanglements.
Patient Sheila Mattia alleged in a lawsuit that an anesthesiologist cut her esophagus while placing a breathing tube into her throat during a 2010 surgery. The injury caused Mattia “to be hospitalized for months,” she said in a motion filed as part of her litigation against several doctors and Your Lap-Band Center, a company affiliated with Lap-Band VIP.
The defendants deny wrongdoing in court documents. The case is scheduled for trial Nov. 26 in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk.
Salimitari is described on the Lap-Band VIP website as a specialist in “gastric banding procedures.” The website does not mention that Salimitari was arrested by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in 2008 and charged with threatening to kill a sheriff’s deputy and a flower shop owner.
The trouble started after the store owner asked Salimitari to move his black BMW 323i, which he had double-parked outside her store in a Valencia strip mall, according to a sheriff’s arrest report.
Salimitari swore at the woman and said, “If you do anything to my car, I’ll kill you,” the store owner, Myra Harbour, testified at a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court in San Fernando. The woman later obtained a restraining order, which is still in effect, that prohibits Salimitari from coming within 100 yards of her.
Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Babiracki said Salimitari threatened to kill him after he arrived at the flower shop. The deputy said he used pepper spray to control the irate surgeon and that he needed another deputy’s help to handcuff the 220-pound Salimitari.
“I felt threatened,” the deputy testified. “He’s larger than I am.”
Facing three felony charges and a possible prison term, Salimitari reached a plea bargain with prosecutors in February 2011. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors: battery and resisting a police officer, according to court records. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service and three years of probation.
Salimitari, 46, filed a motion in May 2011 to withdraw the guilty plea, noting that he was unaware the convictions could affect his state license to practice medicine. The motion has not been heard.
A court clerk notified the Medical Board of California of Salimitari’s conviction, according to court records. The medical board has taken no disciplinary action, according to the agency’s website and Salimitari.
In an interview Monday, Salimitari denied threatening the flower shop owner and deputy. He said the deputy falsely accused him because he needed an excuse for his unwarranted use of pepper spray. Salimitari has filed a lawsuit accusing the deputy of excessive force. The case is pending.
The surgeon said he pleaded guilty because a judge refused to allow him to present evidence at the trial that would have helped him prove his innocence.
“I’m innocent,” he said. “I’m the true victim here.”
The surgeon said he intends to fight to withdraw his guilty pleas and then take the case to trial.
Salimitari has had other legal trouble, according to court records.
He was sued last year by a former employee who accused him of “continuous unwelcome sexual harassment” while she worked at a surgery center affiliated with Lap-Band VIP. Criswell Abel said in the lawsuit that Salimitari touched her inappropriately and once told her to show him her breasts to receive a promotion. She refused and did not get the promotion, the lawsuit alleged.
The lawsuit was dismissed after both sides agreed to a settlement, the terms of which were not disclosed in court documents. Abel’s attorney, Mitchel Brim, said the settlement included a confidentiality agreement that prohibits all sides from discussing the case.
Salimitari said an insurance carrier paid a settlement to Abel, despite his objections. Abel’s allegations were “absolutely not true,” he said.
“When you have insurance they force you to do stuff you don’t want to do,” the surgeon said. “If you don’t settle, they’re not going to cover.”
On its website, Lap-Band VIP includes biographies of doctors and other employees. One of the profiled surgeons is Dr. David Nazarian, who the website said received his medical degree from “Sackler School of Medicine/NYU.”
Sackler School of Medicine is based in Tel Aviv and has a branch in New York, but is not affiliated with New York University, officials with both universities said.
Reed, the general manager of Lap-Band VIP, said in an email that the discrepancy was an error “that will be corrected.”
The same error appears on Nazarian’s LinkedIn home page.