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Lap-Band ads to make risks clearer

1-800-GET-THIN tells an L.A. County supervisor it will make disclosures more prominent.

December 20, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times

The 1-800-GET-THIN marketing company, under scrutiny by federal and local authorities, has pledged to change the way it advertises Lap-Band weight-loss surgery to more prominently disclose risks to patients.

In a letter to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the company said it added new warnings to its website and was reworking its billboard, radio and television ads. Supervisors have scheduled a Tuesday hearing to discuss the ads, which were labeled misleading last week by the Food and Drug Administration.

Plastered across Southern California freeways, the company's billboards include the smiling faces of thin people and catchy phrases such as "Let your new life begin." However, the FDA contends that 1-800-GET-THIN and affiliated surgery centers aren't going far enough to warn consumers about complications, injury or even death. The agency gave the company 15 days to respond.

Five Southern California patients have died after Lap-Band procedures at centers affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN since 2009, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.

The Lap-Band, manufactured by Irvine-based Allergan Inc., is a tube surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating. The surgeries are performed under general anesthesia.

Ridley-Thomas and fellow L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaraslavsky are scheduled to ask the board to consider steps the county could take in response to the Lap-Band ads. After learning of the supervisors' plans, 1-800-GET-THIN representative Robert Silverman sent a letter to Ridley-Thomas and disclosed the company's proposals to change its advertising.

"1-800-GET-THIN is currently changing all billboards, radio and television ads that were deemed non-compliant," Silverman said in the letter. "These disclosures will be in sufficient-sized font to be seen and read and will include the most significant risks. 1-800-GET-THIN will continue to work with the FDA to develop sufficient disclosures that are acceptable to the FDA."

Silverman described himself in the letter as "president and CEO" of 1-800-GET-THIN. Previously, he has identified himself as the company's attorney. He said Monday that he's the company's president and its attorney.

He did not detail how the company would go about making alterations to the campaign's billboard ads.

"Unfortunately, while certain actions can be taken immediately, others like the billboards will require additional time and consideration," Silverman wrote in an email to The Times. "At this time, the decision about the billboards has not been finalized."

Ridley-Thomas issued a statement that said he was pleased to learn of planned changes to the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising. "I look forward to seeing more progress from them," he said.

Concern about the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising comes several months after a false-advertising lawsuit was filed against the company in Los Angeles County Superior Court. 1-800-GET-THIN denies the allegations.

Westlake Village attorney Alexander Robertson, who filed that lawsuit, said he was not impressed with the company's promise to change its ads.

"It seems to be only when they get the threat of some action taken against them that they turn around and say, 'We promise to be good little boys now,'" Robertson said.

The attorney said he thought it would be difficult for the company to produce billboards that meet the FDA's requirements.

"I don't see how anybody could include all that on a billboard and have it in a font size that makes it clearly intelligible to people driving past," he said.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report.

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