FTC Flexes Muscle Against Deceptive Weight-Loss Claims

December 10, 2003

4 Min Read
FTC Flexes Muscle Against Deceptive Weight-Loss Claims

WASHINGTON--With the diet season around the corner, the government released a guide for media aimed at curbing the promotion of get-thin-quick products The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched its Red Flag education campaign Dec. 9 to assist the media in voluntarily screening weight-loss product ads containing claims that are "too good to be true." In support of the initiative, FTC released a media reference guide entitled Red Flag: Bogus Weight Loss Claims (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/redflag/index.html). This move follows FTC's November 2002 FTC workshop, "Deception in Weight-Loss Advertising," when the agency laid the foundation for the program.

"This campaign was designed to simplify screening, but we know some deceptive ads will slip through," said Timothy Muris, FTC chairman, at a press conference. Muris said FTC (www.ftc.gov) is concerned about consumers being taken in by miracle products to lose weight without diet or exercise. "The people making these fraudulent claims are not legitimate businesses," he stated.

The Red Flag plan is meant to reduce deceptive weight-loss advertising and promote positive, reliable advertising messages about weight loss. As part of this effort, FTC came out with a list of seven scientifically "infeasible" claims frequently found in misleading weight-loss ads:

* Consumers who use the advertised product can lose two pounds or more per week (over four or more weeks) without reducing caloric intake and/or increasing their physical activity.

* Consumers who use the advertised product can lose substantial weight while still enjoying unlimited amounts of high calorie foods.

* The advertised product will cause permanent weight loss (even when the user stops using the product).

* The advertised product will cause substantial weight loss through the blockage of absorption of fat or calories.

* Consumers who use the advertised product (without medical supervision) can safely lose more than three pounds per week for a period of more than four weeks.

* Users can lose substantial weight through the use of the advertised product that is worn on the body or rubbed into the skin.

* The advertised product will cause substantial weight loss for all users.

* Consumers who use the advertised product can lose weight only from those parts of the body where they wish to lose weight.

We know that no publication or station wants to print or air false weight-loss claims, Muris said. This booklet provides specific examples of bogus claims, along with explanations that will allow media advertising personnel to avoid bogus weight loss claims and stop them before they injure consumers. We encourage the media to use it.

FTC also reported it had taken actions against three companies using misleading claims to market weight-loss products. The first action was taken against the Canadian company Beauty Visions Worldwide, dba The Fulfillment Solutions Advantage Inc., which advertises and sells seaweed-based weight-loss patches called Hydro-Gel Slim Patch and Slenderstrip. Labeled claims included No starvation diets, small portions or missed meals! and Just fast and easy, LASTING weight loss!

The complaint also named the company's principals, Robert Van Velzen and Nancy Sprague; according to FTC, the defendants falsely represented that Hydro-Gel Slim Patch and Slenderstrip could cause rapid and substantial weight loss--such as losing a pound a day for up to months. FTC was awarded a temporary restraining order against the company, which froze the assets of Beauty Visions Worldwide.

The second action was taken against Universal Nutrition Corp., MTM Marketing & Consulting Inc. and the companies' owner, Robert J. Michnal. The defendants agreed to pay $1 million in consumer redress to settle allegations that they made false and unsubstantiated claims for ThermoSlim, a weight-loss product containing ephedra and other ingredients. According to FTC, the defendants advertised ThermoSlim as 95 pounds gone in 60 days. The settlement also bans the defendants from making false and unsubstantiated claims for ephedra in connection with the marketing of any weight-loss product. Furthermore, the order requires the product's marketing materials bear a prominent warning that ephedra use can result in serious injury and even death.

In the third action taken by FTC, Mark Nutritionals' Harry Siskind--its former president and chief executive officer, and the lone hold-out who hadn't yet settled with FTC--agreed to pay a total of $1 million to the FTC and the states of Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Siskind will pay half of the $1 million to the federal government as part of the settlement with the FTC. Siskinds agreement with the FTC also requires him to post a $1 million bond before selling a weight-loss product or service in the future. The FTC announced settlements with Mark Nutritionals and company executive Edward DAlessandro in October 2003.

The stipulated final order contains a suspended judgment of $155 million with two avalanche clauses: one that requires him to pay the full $155 million if he fails to pay the agreed $500,000 to FTC in a timely manner and a second that requires him to pay the amount in full if it is discovered that he made material misrepresentations on his financial disclosure statements.

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