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Class Status Sought for 'Dr. Phil' Diet Case

October 03, 2005|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

The man famous for advising bitter couples and sullen teens on camera is getting counsel himself these days -- from lawyers.

A suit that targets "Dr. Phil" McGraw claims the popular TV psychologist defrauded his fans with an ill-fated venture into the diet-supplement business.

Three disgruntled customers, who filed the suit last year in Los Angeles County Superior Court, now are seeking national class-action status for the complaint, which could expand it to include thousands of plaintiffs. A judge could rule on the question early next year.

With his Texas drawl and a deep reservoir of homilies, McGraw parlayed his regular appearances on Oprah Winfrey's talk show into his own syndicated show starting in 2002. He dived into the lucrative weight-loss market in mid-2003 with a campaign that included advice books, a prime-time special with Katie Couric on obesity and dieting, and his "Shape Up! with Dr. Phil McGraw" products.

The lawsuit centers on the Shape Up! items -- shakes, bars and multivitamins made by Irving, Texas-based CSA Nutraceuticals that were sold for almost a year in pharmacies, supermarkets and at retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart.

Facing a Federal Trade Commission investigation into false-advertising concerns, CSA Nutraceuticals agreed to stop making the product early last year.

The lawsuit alleges that McGraw made false and misleading assertions for the supplements, including claims that they would cause weight loss by promoting metabolism of fat and reducing carbohydrate cravings and appetite swings.

Plaintiffs said they lost money, not weight. They are seeking refunds and additional damages.

Lawyers for McGraw and codefendant CSA Nutraceuticals denied the false-advertising allegations but declined to comment further on the case.

According to the package label, Shape Up! supplements contained vitamins and minerals, along with herbs and other ingredients.

Consumers could choose the formulation -- "apple" or "pear" -- that most closely matched their body shape. A third formulation, called "The Intensifier" and taken in combination with one of the two others, was advertised to "take your weight management efforts to the next level."

The combination regimen required the user to swallow 22 pills daily at $120 a month.

The label on the multivitamin box said the pills "contain scientifically researched levels of ingredients that can help you change your behavior to take control of your weight."

"Well, that's nonsense," said Henry Rossbacher, a Los Angeles lawyer who is the lead attorney in this case. "We don't think there were any real clinical trials of these products and no real testing."

At least one nutritionist agrees. David Schardt, senior nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "There really isn't any real scientific basis for dietary supplements being able to discriminate between body types. 'Apple' and 'pear' are not scientifically specific categories."

These concerns prompted the Federal Trade Commission to investigate claims that Shape Up! helped dieters lose weight and that it worked better than a program of diet and exercise alone. But in March 2004, when CSA agreed to stop marketing the products, the FTC dropped its probe. Officials with the agency declined to comment.

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