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Lawmaker considers curbs on Lap-Band billboards

In the wake of an FDA warning, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas says he may seek restrictions.

December 15, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Billboards plastered across Southern California freeways with ads such as this one display the smiling faces of thin people and catchy phrases about the benefits of Lap-Band weight-loss surgery. There are warnings about the risks, but the typeface is so small its not legible, the Food and Drug Administration said.
Billboards plastered across Southern California freeways with ads such… (Mariah Tauger, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas says he may call for restrictions on advertising for Lap-Band weight-loss surgery and could even propose a billboard campaign warning consumers about the risks of the procedure.

Ridley-Thomas said Wednesday that he wanted to work with county public health officials to determine steps the county could take to "ensure serious health problems are not trivialized."

His comments came one day after the Food and Drug Administration accused the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing company and affiliated surgery centers of misleading ads about the safety of the weight-loss surgery.

The 1-800-GET-THIN advertising can be seen on freeway billboards throughout Southern California next to smiling faces of thin people. The FDA contends the ads are deceptive because they don't adequately state the risks of the surgery — and Ridley-Thomas said he agrees.

"I hope the advertisers of Lap-Band surgeries will now take this chance to inform the public responsibly," he said.

Five patients have died since 2009 following Lap-Band procedures at outpatient surgery centers affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and public records.

Ridley-Thomas said one option would be to consider restrictions on billboard advertising in unincorporated areas, but he did not elaborate about what steps could be taken. Another would be the county's own ad campaign.

An attorney who represents 1-800-GET-THIN and the surgery centers said concern about the billboards is unfounded. Patients go through counseling about the risks of the surgery, and it can take "many months" from the initial call to surgery, said the attorney, Robert Silverman.

"No one gets the Lap-Band [immediately] after seeing a billboard," Silverman said in an email. "There is an entire process directed by licensed physicians who have no affiliation with 1 800 GET THIN."

Silverman said 1-800-GET-THIN would welcome the opportunity to work with Los Angeles County officials on a nutrition-training program.

If the county gets involved in the Lap-Band issue, it would join other state and federal regulatory agencies examining the high-profile 1-800-GET-THIN marketing campaign and affiliated surgery centers.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones on Tuesday said his office is investigating the Lap-Band industry over questions about alleged fraudulent billings and misrepresented charges.

The Medical Board of California recently completed an investigation of an anesthesiologist's performance in a December 2010 Lap-Band surgery in Beverly Hills that resulted in the death of Lawndale resident Tamara Walter. The medical board forwarded its findings to the state attorney general, according to a letter the agency sent to the dead patient's sister.

Dr. Daniel Shin, the anesthesiologist in question, was accused of providing "suboptimal" care that contributed to the death of Tamara Walter. Shin was on probation at the time of the surgery because of his criminal conviction for assaulting a process server with a meat cleaver, according to medical board and court records.

Walter's surgery was performed at a Beverly Hills center that was among those to receive warning letters from the FDA.

The Los Angeles County coroner is still reviewing the Sept. 8 death of Paula Rojeski. The 55-year-old Orange County woman died after Lap-Band surgery at a West Hills clinic that was also among those issued warning letters by the FDA.

Ed Winter, the county's assistant chief coroner, said his staff recently made a field visit to Valley Surgical Center in West Hills to search for evidence "that might help us determine her cause of death."

Kathryn Trepinski, an attorney who represents Walter's family in a lawsuit against 1-800-GET-THIN, her surgeons and the surgery center, said she's happy to see regulatory agencies getting involved.

"I'm pleased to see action on behalf of the FDA, the medical board and our insurance commissioner," Trepinski said. "All of these agencies working together simultaneously can affect social change and help protect our citizens."

The Lap-Band is a silicone ring surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating.

In its warning letter, the FDA gave 1-800-GET-THIN and affiliated surgery centers 15 days to produce a plan to bring the ads within federal law — or face potential penalties.

1-800-GET-THIN issued a statement that said it was "committed to working with the FDA" to resolve concerns about the advertisements.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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