Dr. Oz’s Sick Journey From Political Joke to Senate Candidate

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

On Tuesday, Dr. Mehmet Oz officially announced his plans to win election to the United States Senate. If successful, it would mean a return to the scene of what might have been the worst humiliation of his career as a pop health guru.

That a celebrity best known for hawking dubious supplements and treatments under the cover of medical expertise would seek the Republican Party nod for a top office is little shock in the current GOP. But Oz wants to join a body where he once found himself obligated to answer for “sham” weight-loss supplements he promoted on his own TV show.

He’d also be tasked with creating policy to address a still-horrific pandemic he has repeatedly spread disinformation about and made light of, to the dismay of experts across the public-health community.

Writing in the right-wing Washington Examiner, Oz on Tuesday confirmed long-running rumors he would seek the GOP nomination for the seat belonging to retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). The Cleveland-born, New Jersey-based cardiac physician did not mention the Keystone State outside the article’s headline, instead hyping himself as a figure who could cure the ongoing public-health crisis and end government lockdowns.

Should he triumph in the increasingly crowded Republican primary, Oz needn’t fear running into the senator who lambasted his promotion of such unproven treatments as green coffee bean extract, brindleberry pills, and raspberry ketones as “miracle” products for those hoping to shed pounds.

“The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products,” Claire McCaskill, who fell to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in 2018, said in the hearing. “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true.”

McCaskill could not be reached for comment for this story. But at the time, Oz—who did not respond to repeated outreach by The Daily Beast—admitted research did not support his claims, even as he testified that he honestly believed them nonetheless. The following year, 10 doctors penned a letter to Columbia University urging the institution to remove him from its faculty, citing his “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine.”

Oz dismissed his detractors then as compromised publicity seekers, while the school defended him in the name of “academic freedom.” Six years later, doctors’ opinions of him have scarcely improved.

“I can’t imagine anyone who is more unqualified, psychologically or ethically, to run for high elected office,” said lead signatory Dr. Henry I. Miller, a veteran not just of the Food and Drug Administration but such right-of-center outfits as Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Over many years, Oz has shown himself to be a self-aggrandizing, dishonest grifter.”

Please Don’t Elect Dr. Oz—He’s a Disgrace to Our Profession

In fact, the early days of the pandemic found Oz turning from an insta-slim pill pusher to something far more dangerous: a hawker of unproven COVID-19 remedies with the ear of an impressionable American president.

When doctors began to diagnose the first cases of the novel coronavirus in 2020, Oz quickly became the face of NBC’s “crisis team”—and began doling out dubious advice. He encouraged young people, as well as the elderly actor William Shatner, to “go ahead and travel” as those over 60 faced the most severe risks from the disease. But the network had to add an asterisk to some of his recommendations, noting that there was little evidence that the regimen of meditation and wellness he advocated improved immune function.

Meanwhile, he created a “survival protocol” sheet that called for people to fortify themselves with supplements of Vitamin C, Vitamin D, elderberry, and zinc. There was and remains no strong scientific proof the nutrient supplements Oz recommended improve health in those not suffering from deficiencies, and in high dosages they may have significant ill effects. And while the elderberry syrups and lozenges Oz promoted are enormously popular, there is little data indicating they protect against COVID-19 or any other disease.

Still, Fox News and its affiliates swiftly picked up the guide, and Oz became a favorite guest on the channel.

“I don’t believe quarantines are effective,” he declared in a March 9, 2020, appearance on Fox & Friends, well before vitriolic resistance to shelter-in-place measures became a hallmark of Republican politics.

In late March, when the nation broke through the 1,000-death threshold, Oz asserted on the same program that “worry and panic” over the disease would prove worse than the virus itself. He continued to oppose lockdowns in an infamous appearance on Hannity that April, where he argued that a 2-3 percent increase in mortality from reopening schools “might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”

Oz subsequently had to apologize on social media.

But perhaps Oz’s most controversial reaction to COVID-19 was his promotion of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine. His support for the then dubious and now widely debunked drug, and his criticism of presidential medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci’s skepticism about it, earned him the ear of President Donald Trump, as The Daily Beast and New York Times reported. Oz urged the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine on Vice President Mike Pence in a virtual town hall on Fox, while Oz reportedly consulted the White House team off-camera, part of a saga that culminated in the short-lived emergency authorization of the medication.

Oz himself eventually had to admit that there was as yet no hard evidence of hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness.

"He’s a snake oil salesman,” said Dr. Shelley Fleet, another signatory to the 2015 missive to Columbia.

Fleet lamented that Oz had abandoned his career as a surgeon, in which she credited him with saving the life of a close friend’s husband, to become a promoter of pseudoscience. “I think he left that world behind when he decided to be a TV personality and sell things like diet plans and peddle hydroxychloroquine, stuff that’s not proven to be scientifically effective, just because he’s got a platform.”

Oz does have his defenders in mainstream medicine. Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and a contributor to The Daily Beast, acknowledged that the erstwhile surgical superstar had dabbled in spurious remedies. But he lauded Oz as a staunch supporter of vaccination—a stance that puts the doctor at odds with a substantial segment of the Republican base.

"The Dr. Oz I talk to is a straight shooter about vaccines,” said Hotez, whom Oz has repeatedly invited on-air to discuss inoculations.

Still, Oz’s past behavior bodes poorly for the man’s political career, Fleet argued. After all, right-wing opposition to vaccination mandates and other scientifically validated treatments continues to grow ever-more feverish. In Pennsylvania, school boards have become a war zone over mask mandates, where one local ringleader and failed candidate made open threats of physical force.

As it happens, that same ringleader runs an “alternative medicine and weight loss” practice.

“​​He’s a panderer,” Fleet said of Oz. “And he’ll pander to whoever gives him the most exposure.”

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