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Five patients die - now weight-loss billboards are carrying the can

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By Noel Young, Correspondent

December 14, 2011 | 3 min read

Five patients have died in two years after operations to insert a so-called Lap-Band - a silicone ring implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating.

The offending billboard

Now American authorities have cracked down on a barrage of billboards advertising the procedure on Southern California roads.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who heads Los Angeles County's public health agency filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration after The Los Angeles Times published a series of articles about the ad campaign and patient deaths.

The FDA has now accused the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing company of misleading advertising. The agency says the billboard, radio and television ads "underplay serious risks".

The giant billboards display the smiling faces of thin people and phrases about the benefits of Lap-Band surgery. There are warnings about the risks, but the typeface is too small to read, the FDA said.

The FDA has written to 1-800-GET-THIN and eight surgery centres, insisting the ads, which tell patients to "let your new life begin," must do a better job of describing the risks. They have 15 days to tell the FDA how they will correct the ads.

The surgeries vary in cost — from $12,000 to $20,000, says the manufacturer Allergan , who also complained about the ads, along with relatives of deceased patients.

The FDA move is "certainly going to discourage a lot of people from pursuing the surgery," said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing.

A lawyer for 1-800-GET-THIN said the marketing company will work with the FDA to resolve the problems and remains committed to patient safety.

Steve Silverman, an FDA director who oversaw the investigation, said the ad campaign didn't tell prospective patients all they needed to know.

"They're speaking to a very vulnerable patient population. People who are obese have often struggled through their whole lives to lose weight."

"I was in Los Angeles earlier this year and I was astonished at the number of billboards. It was billboard after billboard after billboard after billboard."

The patients' deaths and injuries have also led to a series of wrongful-death and personal injury lawsuits

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