FTC: Weight-Loss Marketers Dupe Consumers

More than half of all advertisements for weight-loss products contain questionable claims, and 40 percent contain at least one claim that is almost certainly an outright falsehood, the Federal Trade Commission said in a study released yesterday.

The FTC examined 300 ads and promotions in major media channels between February and March 2001. The ads used misleading testimonials, deceptive before-and-after photos and false claims, and they appeared in mainstream and national publications, the commission said.

Many ads claimed the products would let consumers lose weight without diet or exercise, a claim that flies in the face of science, the FTC said. Weight-loss product ads doubled from 1992 to 2001.

The past 10 years have seen a shift from low-calorie meal replacement products to pills that marketers commonly claim work in the absence of diet and exercise, the FTC said. The likelihood that weight-loss product ads make misleading claims has grown since 1992, according to the commission.

“The only things these quick-fix items leave lighter are consumer wallets,” FTC chairman Timothy Muris said.

The FTC conducted the study along with the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management. The agency plans a public workshop on deceptive advertising in the weight-loss product industry Nov. 19.

In addition to the study, the FTC said it had filed federal civil charges against a Quebec-based company doing business under the name Bio Lab, which marketed the weight-loss and cellulite-treatment products Quick Slim and Cellu-Fight. The company claimed the products eliminated weight and cellulite without any user effort.

Bio Lab advertised Quick Slim in Glamour and TV Guide magazines, in weekend newspaper coupon inserts in the Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, and on the Internet, and also sold via direct response, the FTC charged. Ads claimed Quick Slim could help consumers “Lose Up to 2 Pounds Daily Without Diet or Exercise” and sold the product at a rate of $70 for a bottle of 180 caplets, according to the commission.

Bio Lab marketed the Cellu-Fight product via direct mail and Internet advertising, selling bottles containing 60 tablets for $40, the FTC said. The company claimed Cellu-Fight was a “New Tablet For a Direct Attack on Cellulite” and that the “New Tablet Completely Eliminates Cellulite,” according to the charges.

Neither product has been clinically proven to provide the benefits claimed in the ads, the FTC said.

On Sept. 6, a federal judge in Albany, NY, approved a restraining order against Bio Lab prohibiting it from advertising and essentially halting the company's operations, Muris said. A preliminary hearing on the case is set for Sept. 20.

According to the FTC, the weight-loss industry generates billions of dollars of revenue annually, with diet pills alone generating an estimated $5 billion in sales each year. Health advocates called on publishers and media owners to screen ads for deceptive claims and deny fraudulent marketers a venue for their misleading promotions.

“Weight-loss products are not a victimless crime,” said Lynn McAfee, an advocate for obesity sufferers. “It encourages the stereotype that anyone can be easily thin. We're told we can buy our way out of a pervasive prejudice.”

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