Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon running in Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, says he can’t be bought by the lobbying interests that wield power in Congress, including one he knows well as a doctor: Big Pharma.
But Oz, who’s traded his TV show and surgery scrubs to run for office in a state he hadn’t lived in since attending the University of Pennsylvania, has a history of embracing both Big Pharma and, alternatively, quack science that eschews drug companies and their products.
“If you don’t take on big authority groups, they just bulldoze you over,” Oz said on “The Dom Giordano Program,” a Philadelphia radio show, earlier this month. “Big Pharma, Big Tech, agrichemical companies — I’ve taken these guys on. I have the scars to prove it, and I can’t be bought.”
Big Pharma, which isn’t as popular a GOP target as Big Tech, refers to the global pharmaceutical giants that produce drugs and medical devices — and that spend liberally to get lawmakers to do their bidding.
It’s not a new concept for Oz, who established a medical career as a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon with 11 patents and an appointment on Columbia University’s faculty. Drug companies pay doctors like Oz handsomely to give promotional talks and to do consulting.
Oz’s business ventures show he has welcomed money from the pharmaceutical interests he claims he has “taken on.” At the same time, he’s gotten rich while promoting bogus weight loss products and bizarre alternative cures that even Oz himself conceded don’t pass scientific muster.
His website for Oz Media previously listed pharma giants Aventis (known now as Sanofi), Bayer and Novartis as corporate clients, according to a 2017 screenshot of a now-defunct page shared with HuffPost. Other clients at the time included Costco, Google and Hard Rock Casino.
In 2015, ProPublica’s Dollars For Docs site, which culled government data to reveal the financial relationships between doctors and pharmaceutical companies, indicated that Oz earned about $1.5 million from those companies in 2013 and 2014.
Nearly $1.2 million of that was from Covidien Sales LLC, which produced a hemorrhoid therapy Oz helped develop. He also received almost $300,000 in speaking fees from Evalve, Inc., a manufacturer of cardiac medical devices. Those figures come from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which collects data on how much drug and medical device companies pay doctors for certain services such as speaking and research.
Oz also helped co-found Sharecare.com more than a decade ago. Launched as a website for health advice, Sharecare featured Oz as a celebrity expert at its outset. The site, which has since migrated to a mobile app, mixed expert advice and sponsored content from marketers that included major drug companies.
Even if Oz wanted to frame his candidacy around being an opponent of Big Pharma, it can be a tough posture to adopt in Congress, experts say. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions each year lobbying lawmakers from both parties. Drug company contributions to lawmakers reached an all-time high in 2020 during the pandemic, when drugmakers were heavily lobbying the government for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
“When you have an industry that has a lot of money and it’s highly concentrated, that translates to tremendous political power,” said Frederick Isasi, executive director of Families USA, a consumer health advocacy organization. “Any time you go up against pharma, it’s a David versus Goliath fight.”
“These folks have the deepest pockets you can possibly imagine,” he added.
Oz’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment about how, exactly, he’s taken on Big Pharma. His campaign account hasn’t tweeted about Big Pharma since shortly after its launch.
Oz has been in the public eye since rising to fame on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. He has a business empire that sprung out of his nationally syndicated program, “The Dr. Oz Show,” featuring books, columns and Oz-branded merchandise, including a mattress frame meant to reduce snoring and scores of other products manufactured in China. (Oz’s campaign website lists “getting tough on China” as a top issue.)
Oz, however, is ending his show in 2022 after 12 seasons to pursue his political career, Politico reported this week.
There’s plenty for Oz’s opponents to mine in what’s expected to be a competitive and expensive GOP primary and general election for one of the nation’s most hotly contested open Senate seats. Eventually, he’ll be required to file a financial disclosure detailing the assets and holdings he has accumulated from a lucrative career in showbiz and medicine.
As a political newcomer, Oz is leaning into his medical background, arguing that officials bungled the pandemic response by limiting people’s freedoms and shutting businesses.
Already Oz, born in Cleveland and raised in Delaware near Philadelphia, is having to answer for his questionable residency ties to Pennsylvania, since he’s known as a longtime New Jersey resident. Oz said he lives now in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and has pointed out that he was raised just over the border in Delaware.
As a TV host with a massive following, Oz has been ridiculed for promoting untested remedies such as green coffee bean extract — touted as a miracle weight loss cure on his show before the maker of the product was fined $3.5 million for making false claims — and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which studies have failed to show helps cure COVID-19.
Still, Oz enters a crowded field with instant name recognition and cash to spend on replacing retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.
The celebrity surgeon is also considered to be a strong contender for former President Donald Trump’s endorsement after Trump’s initial pick, Sean Parnell, dropped out of the race amid domestic violence allegations.