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A second Lap-Band firm is warned

FDA orders Lap-Band VIP in Tarzana to pull misleading ads or face disciplinary action.

July 31, 2012|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
  • In a June 25 letter, the Food and Drug Administration said that Lap-Band VIP's advertising, including this billboard along the 5 Freeway in Commerce, was misleading because it failed to include adequate warnings about the surgery’s risks.
In a June 25 letter, the Food and Drug Administration said that Lap-Band… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

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.

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