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Weight-loss deception found

Dieters need to be wary of advertisements for weight-loss products and services that make "grossly exaggerated" claims, says a Federal Trade Commission report released Tuesday.

The agency reviewed 300 weight-loss ads from last year for 218 different dietary supplements, meal replacements, patches, creams, wraps and other weight-loss products and services.

The report, available at www.ftc.gov/dietfit, found that 40% of the ads made at least one representation that was almost certainly false, and 55% made a claim that was very likely false or at least lacked adequate substantiation.

A comparison of the current ads with those that ran in 1992 suggests there is a significant increase in the amount of deceptive weight-loss advertising, the agency says.

Currently, more than 120 million (about 61%) of the people in this country are either overweight or obese, which is roughly 30 pounds or more over a healthy weight. Americans are spending billions on products and services to shed unwanted pounds, the FTC says.

Experts say that many of these ads are distracting people from doing things that would help them achieve a healthy body weight.

"There is no miracle pill that will lead to weight loss," says Surgeon General Richard Carmona. Losing weight requires a lifelong commitment to healthful eating and physical activity, he says.

Obesity researcher George Blackburn of Harvard Medical School says that "by plying false hopes for the quick cure or the cheap fix, these fraudulent messages divert people from programs and services that have been proven safe and effective by credible scientific study."

The FTC analysis was done with the assistance of the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management, a coalition of representatives of science, academia, health professions, government agencies and public interest groups.

Since 1990, the agency has filed 93 cases against false and misleading weight-loss claims involving over-the-counter drugs, supplements, devices, weight-loss centers and exercise equipment. But despite those efforts, the report makes it clear that the "problem is getting worse, not better," says FTC chairman Timothy Muris.

Annette Dickinson of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for the dietary supplement industry, says the FTC "is quite right to be moving against outrageous claims, but people should also realize that there are reasonable products out there that might be helpful to them."

The report says there are several common techniques used in ads that should raise red flags to dieters, including:

  • Testimonials and before/after photos. An example of what the agency calls an "implausible" consumer testimonial: "7 weeks ago I weighed 268 pounds, now I am down to just 148 pounds! During this time I didn't change my eating habits at all: the pounds must have disappeared only due to a new slimming capsule."
  • Rapid-weight-loss claims. Some said dieters could lose up to 10 pounds a week while using the product.
  • No diet or exercise required. This claim was common in ads for quick-fix pills, patches, potions and programs, despite the scientific evidence that both diet and exercise are crucial to weight loss, the agency says. One ad claim: "You can eat as much as you want and still lose weight."

Some ads promise long-term weight loss, boast that the product is clinically proven or approved by a doctor, or tout the product as providing natural and safe weight loss.

The agency recommends that:

  • The media adopt reasonable screening standards that weed out deceptive or misleading claims. The FTC report says the major TV networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, already use stringent screening methods.
  • Dieters be better informed about what it takes to maintain a healthy weight, learn how to shop wisely for weight-loss services and products, and be wary of ads that promise quick fixes.
  • Trade associations and self-regulatory groups do a better job educating their members about standards for truthful advertising and enforcing those standards.

Louis Hodges, professor of ethics in journalism at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., says that asking news organizations to screen ads diligently is a reasonable request.

"News organizations ought to want to avoid publishing any kind of misleading information, whether it's in an advertisement or news story," Hodges says. "It would be a difficult thing to accomplish this perfectly, but we could do a better job than we are doing now.

"It's calling on people to do more than act out of pure self-interest," he says.

Many publishers already do screen ads, says Jeffrey Seglin, professor of publishing and writing at Emerson College in Boston. "The ones who do it now are going to continue to do it, and the ones who don't do it now probably won't do it."

He says it seems as if "the FTC is asking publishers and broadcasters to do the FTC's job."


Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY. September 18, 2002.

Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.