Los Angeles County supervisors voted to press for new state oversight of outpatient surgery centers, a response to concern about the widespread 1-800-GET-THIN advertising for Lap-Band weight-loss surgery.
Supervisors took that step Tuesday after a lengthy hearing about the ad campaign, which came under scrutiny last week from the Food and Drug Administration. The agency says the billboard, radio and television ads are misleading because they don’t adequately warn about risks to patients.
Five Southern California patients have died after Lap-Band surgeries at clinics affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.
Those surgeries were performed at outpatient clinics that under state law are licensed by private accrediting agencies. The board voted to pursue a state law that would put the state Department of Health Services in charge of the outpatient surgery centers.
Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s hearing was about the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising. The campaign is plastered along freeway billboards throughout Southern California, with smiling faces, thin bodies and catchy slogans such as “Let your new life begin.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he was disappointed that 1-800-GET-THIN President Robert Silverman would not provide specific details about the company’s business operations or its relationship with the outpatient clinics where surgeries are performed.
“It’s been a long time since a member of the public has come to that table and has obfuscated as consistently and persistently as you have today,” Yaroslavsky told the 1-800-GET-THIN official. “I did not come here as a person who had any fundamental suspicion one way or the other about what you are doing. I leave here feeling you are hiding something.”
The Lap-Band, manufactured by Irvine-based Allergan Inc., is a tube that is surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating. The surgeries are performed under general anesthesia.
In addition to voting to push the state to regulate outpatient surgery centers, supervisors directed county lawyers to study whether they could restrict billboard advertising without violating the 1st Amendment.
They also asked county health officials to study a public awareness campaign that would advocate healthful ways for people to lose weight and keep it off without surgery.
The board took those steps after listening to Silverman’s assurances that 1-800-GET-THIN would follow the FDA’s instructions. The FDA said it wants the company to place prominent warnings about risks of the surgery in its advertising.
“We are currently reviewing the television advertisements, the radio advertisements and the billboards, as well as how we can develop even more substantial disclosures to comply with the FDA,” Silverman said at the hearing.
Supervisors Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas did not seem satisfied. They pressed Silverman for answers about how the company operates, whether sales staff are paid commissions and the demographics of its patients.
Silverman said 1-800-GET-THIN has no employees and said he was not familiar with the people who answer telephone calls from prospective patients, so he did not know whether they received commissions. He declined to identify “business partners” affiliated with the marketing company.
Yaroslavsky said Silverman made it seem that 1-800-GET-THIN was “some kind of an entity just hovering in space.”
“You have not answered a question straight since you came down here,” Yaroslavsky said. “I’m very troubled by that.”
The FDA gave 1-800-GET-THIN and its affiliated surgery centers until early January to develop a plan to bring the ads into compliance with federal law.