Harvard Med Grad Pitches Iffy Diet Pill

Anyone who has struggled to lose weight can't help perking up at the promises made in the commercials for Propolene, touted as a pill that is proven to help people lose weight without diet or exercise.

"Dramatic weight loss can now be achieved without diet or exercise," the commercial boasts. "Propolene — scientifically proven to reduce weight without special diet and exercise."

The product, aimed at those who are 20 pounds or more overweight, sounds like a huge breakthrough for America's overweight majority. The person pitching the product sounds impressive, too: Jonathan Kelley, M.D., a Harvard Medical School graduate.

But closer inspection raises some questions. Kelley really did graduate Harvard Medical School in 1968 and he still has a medical license in California. But he acknowledged to Good Morning America that he is an anesthesiologist, not a weight loss expert.

Dr. George Blackburn, a professor at Harvard Medical School, was disappointed to learn that Kelley was promoting Propolene.

"This is shameful," said Blackburn. After watching the commercial, he was even more disappointed.

"He should know better," Blackburn said. "This is really sad."

The products claims are blatantly untrue, he said. The Federal Trade Commission did not comment on Propolene specifically, but says that advertisements claiming that a product can bring about any substantial weight loss without diet or exercise are bogus, and should be a red flag to consumers.

Claims Can't Be True

"Claims that you can lose substantial amounts of weight without diet and exercise cannot possibly be true," said Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

There are testimonials in the Propolene commercial, in which alleged users claim, "The pounds just fell off," "I lost 25 pounds in six weeks," and "This pill will work."

But such dramatic weight loss claims ring false to experts, who say that the typical overweight person on a diet can safely lose only about one to two pounds a week.

"Hundreds of studies that I've done and thousands of patients that I've studied, I've never seen anybody lose 25 pounds in six weeks," Blackburn said

The active ingredients in Propolene capsules are green tea, which supposedly boosts your metabolism, and something called glucomannan, a soluble fiber that expands in the stomach, supposedly making people feel full so that they eat less.

Glucomannan is not something new. Blackburn says he researched it more than 20 years ago, and controlled trials showed it did not promote weight loss.

"It's my opinion it doesn't work," he said.

Unhappy Customers

Propolene orders are processed in Reno, Nev. The Better Business Bureau there has received more than 125 complaints from dissatisfied customers, many of whom complain about being overbilled. Most of the complaints were eventually resolved. But Michael Hess, of Sharonville, Ohio, had a billing problem and said the product did not work for him.

"I took it for two weeks," Hess said. "It actually resulted in gaining five pounds."

The commercial for Propolene cites the Obesity Research Institute as the company behind Propolene. ABC News traced the institute to a house in Encinitas, Calif. When a Good Morning America producer phoned the institute, one of the executives declined an on-camera interview about Propolene.

"It's not a bogus product," he told Good Morning America, and said that Propolene works as advertised before hanging up.

In the commercial, Kelley tells weight loss hopefuls that they can get the pill after just a phone call.

"And now you can get Propolene over the phone without a prescription," he says.

Technically, no prescription would be needed for Propolene anyway since it is not a drug that is approved by Food and Drug Administration. The Propolene spot is not the only commercial that Kelley has appeared in. Several years ago, Kelley moved to Los Angeles and took up acting. He has an agent, and had head shot photographs taken to promote himself. In another commercial, he also identifies himself as a doctor.

"Don't settle for hair loss when you can reverse your hair loss now," Kelley claims in another commercial, for the hair loss product Metroxin.

Kelley declined an on-camera interview, but he said that he stands by Propolene.

"I believe in the product," Kelley said. "I wouldn't get up and advertise snake oil."

He insisted that the product is sound, and said he takes it himself.

When asked if he was misusing his training and background, Kelley said absolutely not. Blackburn disagrees and says he is saddened by Kelley's use of his Harvard degree as a way to promote Propolene.