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Trade Commission Eases Its Stance On Diet-Ad Claims

Federal regulators are backing off from warnings that they might sue broadcasters and publishers carrying advertisements for fraudulent weight-loss products, and instead have drafted a set of ad guidelines to encourage self-policing.

With six in 10 Americans now considered overweight or obese, dieting aids are in high demand as more people look for an easy way to slim down. Misleading advertising makes the problem worse by "keeping people from doing what they are going to have to do if they want to lose weight -- which is to eat less and exercise more," said Howard Beales, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

To combat the proliferation of ads hawking miracle pills, patches and other goods promising quick and effortless weight loss, the FTC last year suggested that the newspapers, magazines and television stations running the ads were part of the problem. Commission chairman Timothy Muris warned media companies that his agency could take legal action if they didn't filter out the bogus claims, and he urged media executives to take the time needed to question weight-loss claims before publication.

In an announcement set for Tuesday, the FTC is expected to say that broadcasters and publishers are running fewer "clearly false" ads, and that voluntary guidelines are the best way to continue the effort. The agency will continue to take enforcement actions against the product makers and plans to announce new cases Tuesday.

"We think that the media has an interest in trying to make sure the information they provide their readers is truthful and accurate," Mr. Beales said. "What we're trying to do is make it easier for them to identify the problem ad in this area, and keep it from ever running."

An FTC-commissioned study of 300 ads for weight-loss products released last year concluded that deceptive advertising was widespread, with 40% of the ads making at least one false representation.

The new guidelines, which don't name specific products, lay out seven claims the agency says should raise a red flag.

Ads singled out for rejection include those that claim: "I lost 30 pounds in 30 days even though I ate all my favorite foods;" "I lost 15 pounds in 30 days without having to change my eating habits or lifestyle in any way;" and "Eat all the foods you love, and still lose weight (pill does all the work)."

Media companies should also reject ads or television infomercials for products such as pills, dietary supplements or skin patches that promise the weight loss will be "substantial" regardless of how much food the user consumes, the agency says.

Media trade associations welcome the government's toned-down rhetoric. The FTC's warnings last year alarmed many broadcasters and publishers, who complained that ad executives lack the scientific expertise to interpret the ads and that implementing a rigorous screening program would be costly and infeasible in some cases because of tight deadlines.

Ad guidelines are a more realistic approach, said John Kimball, chief marketing officer of the 2,000-member Newspaper Association of America. "We don't think that newspapers should be in the role of policing advertising claims, but I think that the guidelines will give the newspapers some direction."

He said publishers are already taking a closer look at ads for weight-loss products, but noted that even some experts disagree over which claims are scientifically feasible. The guidelines won't "result in wholesale rejection of these ads," he said.

Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, also praised the FTC's efforts and said the group is committed to supporting voluntary industry regulation. Like other trade associations for the media, the group believes the liability for false ads should fall on the advertiser, not the medium.

Some in the weight-loss industry also seem comfortable with the approach. David Seckman, CEO of the National Nutritional Foods Association, which represents retailers, manufacturers, and distributors of natural foods, dietary supplements and health/beauty aids, said the guidelines are in line with his group's longstanding position that to lose weight, consumers need to mix the products with exercise and a proper diet.

The guidelines will be posted on the FTC's Web site, and trade associations have promised to distribute them to members over the coming days.

Posted on aef.com: December 12, 2003


Ryan J. Foley, The Wall Street Journal. December 9, 2003

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