Federal authorities have warned a Southern California marketing company promoting Lap-Band weight-loss surgery that it is illegally engaging in false advertising that downplays the serious risks of the procedure.

The Food and Drug Administration told the firm, 1-800-GET-THIN, that its billboards and print advertising “fail to provide required risk information, including warnings, precautions, possible side effects and contraindications.” The agency also said it “is concerned” that the information on medical risks in its print advertising “is too small to be read by consumers.”

In its warning letters, the FDA told the marketing firm and eight surgical centers affiliated with it that failure to end the violations quickly could result in injunctions, fines or seizure of their Lap-Bands. According to the Los Angeles Times, a lawyer who represents 1-800-GET-THIN said the marketing company will work with the FDA to resolve the problems.

The Times, which has reported extensively on the Lap-Band businesses, said five Southern California patients have died since 2009 after surgeries at centers affiliated with the advertising campaign, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.

The Lap-Band is a silicone ring surgically implanted around the stomach to discourage overeating. The surgeries, which often are covered by insurance for obese patients, can cost in the range of $12,000 to about $20,000, according to the manufacturer of the device.

Patient deaths and injuries have prompted wrongful death, personal injury and class-action litigation. A lawyer who filed the class-action suit and two wrongful death cases said the operators of the businesses have “gone out of their way to make it sound like it’s a drive-through surgery, a one-hour safe procedure. So I’m glad the FDA is doing this.”

Still, the lawyer added, “It’s unfortunate it’s taken so long. It doesn’t do any good for the five people who’ve lost their lives.”

Separately, a Times business column pointed out that 1-800-GET-THIN and and its affiliates have lashed out at their critics previously. They have accused the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and an anesthesiology expert for the country coroner’s office with conflicts of interest. They also have repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, sued the Times itself for its coverage.

STUART SILVERSTEIN

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