FTC Attempts To Curb Misleading Weight-Loss Claims

September 17, 2002

5 Min Read
FTC Attempts To Curb Misleading Weight-Loss Claims

WASHINGTON--In a report released Sept. 17, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) shared that in a 2001 review of 300 weight-loss ads promoting 218 different products, 55 percent had at least one false or unsubstantiated claim. For its report, Weight-Loss Advertising: An Analysis of Current Trends, FTC reviewed ads from TV, radio, newspapers, direct mail, commercial E-mail and Web sites; the commission also compared weight-loss ads from eight national magazines published in 1992 and 2001.

In the report, FTC stated that six out of every 10 Americans are either overweight or obese, conditions that constitute the second leading preventable death (smoking is the first). Reportedly, 70 million Americans are trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain, and approximately $35 billion was spent on weight-loss products in 2000.

This report follows former Surgeon General David Satcher's 2001 call to action for preventing and decreasing the prevalence of overweight and obese individuals. In his preface to the FTC report, current Surgeon General Richard Carmona, M.D., stated, "Advertising can play an important role in providing consumers with the information they need to make healthy weight-loss choices. ... I join the FTC staff in urging all who play a role in ensuring accurate and healthful information about weight-loss interventions to read this report."

FTC, which co-authored the report with the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management (www.consumer.gov/weightloss), announced that not only had the number of weight-loss ads doubled between 1992 and 2001, but the use of testimonials and before-and-after photos had also increased. Ads using testimonials climbed from 12.5 percent in 1992 to 76 percent in 2001; during the same time period, the use of before-and-after photos increased from 12.5 percent to 48 percent. FTC noted that some before-and-after shots had clearly been altered.

Dietary supplements constituted the majority of products currently being sold in weight-loss ads; in 1992, meal replacement products had been the most advertised. The agency stated half of the ads they reviewed promoted products that were "safe," with 71 percent of these ads claiming products were "all natural." Nearly half of all marketers who used ephedra in a product also claimed their products were safe, and only 30 percent of ads for ephedra-containing products included a warning about the herb's possible adverse effects. One ad that did carry an ephedra warning went on to say that the product had been shown to be safe in laboratory tests. "Conflicting messages in an advertisement about safety may confuse consumers and, ultimately, may cause them to ignore safety-related warnings," FTC stated in the report.

The ads, according to FTC, often boasted "miraculous" results, promising quick and easy weight loss without calorie reduction and exercise. The agency also reported that the use of exaggerated weight-loss claims--such as promising rapid weight loss and even permanent weight loss--is on the rise.

This is not the first time FTC has asked the media to be more proactive in preventing deceptive weight-loss ads from reaching their readers. In 1997, FTC asked the same thing of the media during "Operation Waistline," when FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection sent letters to more than 100 publications. "It is apparent that most media make little or no attempt to screen questionable ads for weight-loss products," FTC wrote in its report. Exceptions included ABC, CBS, NBC and Good Housekeeping magazine.

The commission also created a packet for the media to use as a reference when reviewing weight-loss ads. In "Screening Advertisements: A Guide for the Media" (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/adscreen.pdf), FTC, the Direct Marketing Association and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service advised the media to screen for misleading weight-loss products by taking actions such as asking for a sample of the merchandise or reviewing the ad's copy.

"False and misleading claims in weight-loss ads are widespread," said Richard Cleland, assistant director for FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, as well as the trend report's lead author. He said the report shows media, advertisers and even consumers need to assess the role they play in ensuring the accuracy of these ads. "If anything, [these ads] compound an already serious national health crisis by steering consumers away from weight-loss methods that have demonstrated benefits."

FTC has also launched a Web site (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/fitness) with consumer, trade and press information regarding deceptive weight-loss advertising. FTC also has information on how to spot questionable exercise equipment ads, such as those for electronic abdominal exercise belts.

"Reputable marketers continue to take care to avoid false and misleading claims, but it appears that too many unscrupulous marketers are making false claims promising dramatic and effortless weight loss to sell their products," said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris. "It is not fair to consumers, it is not fair to legitimate businesses, it is illegal, and it will not be tolerated."

Annette Dickinson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, stated that FTC was within its rights to release this report. "FTC has made it clear that there are some completely outrageous claims out there, and I think FTC is quite right in moving against those claims," she said. "I think it's always a shame when companies aren't abiding by their obligation to substantiate claims. ... There are, however, products in both the dietary supplement and food areas that do not fall into that outrageous category."

FTC also announced that it would hold a workshop Nov. 19 to explore alternate approaches for reducing deceptive claims in advertising for weight-loss products. The workshop will be held from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at FTC's headquarters at 6000 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. The meeting will feature panels of public health officials, medical professionals, researchers, advertising executives, media experts and members of the weight-loss industry. Written requests to participate as a panelist must be filed by Oct. 15 via the Federal Register (www.access.gpo.gov). Written comments must be filed on or before Oct. 29.

In related FTC news, the commission charged Canada-based Bio Lab and its president, Jean-Francois Brochu for marketing "Quick Slim" (for weight loss) and "Cellu-Fight" (for reducing cellulite) with unsubstantiated claims as weight-loss and cellulite products. On Sept. 6, a U.S. District Court judge entered a temporary restraining order from making misleading claims; the defendants' assets have also been frozen. A preliminary injunction hearing is set for Sept. 20.

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