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Weight Loss Ads Often Untrue

FTC Warns Against Deceptive Weight Loss Advertising Claims

The world of weight-loss advertising is a fraudulent fantasy land where pounds “melt away,” no diet or exercise is required and “miracle” substances like apple pectin and lobster shells seek and destroy enemy fat, according to a new report issued Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC warns that the use of deceptive and misleading claims in weight-loss advertising is rampant. Nearly 40 percent of ads in a study by FTC regulators contained claims that were almost certainly false on their face, such as “You can lose 18 pounds in one week.” Plus, 55 percent of ads made claims that were very likely to be false or lacked any proof.

And this type of advertising appears to be on the rise, despite increased law enforcement efforts by the FTC. “Consumers are being ripped off by products that don’t perform as promised,” said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris at a press conference Tuesday. “The only thing these quick fixes leave lighter is their wallets.” About 6 in 10 Americans are overweight or obese. U.S. consumers desperate to shed the extra pounds spend more than $30 billion per year on weight-loss products ranging from pills to patches to creams.

The FTC analyzed 300 advertisements for weight-loss products that appeared on television and radio and in magazines, newspapers, tabloids, direct-mail flyers, e-mail solicitations and Web sites during 2001. The agency also compared ads from eight major national magazines appearing in 1992 to those a decade later.

Weight Loss Ads Getting Crazier

Researchers found that the number of weight-loss ads appearing in mainstream magazines such as Redbook and Cosmopolitan more than doubled between 1992 and 2001. The claims also were more over the top in the most recent issues. The study also noted the types of products advertised shifted from primarily meal-replacement programs to dietary supplements. This raises concerns because supplements are generally marketed with claims that reducing calories or increasing exercise is unnecessary and there is no scientific evidence that any over-the-counter pill causes substantial, sustained weight loss. Though the safety of weight-loss products is not within the purview of the FTC’s report, Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutrition sciences program at the University of Washington in Seattle, is concerned about the potential health risks.

While he notes that most of these supplements are essentially sugar or caffeine pills, others contain ingredients, such as the herbal stimulant ephedra, that may cause health ills. The popular herb is currently being investigated for serious safety concerns, including a possible link to heart attacks and strokes.

If there seem to be more weight-loss ads in the media than ever before, you’re right – so many that the government moved in to evalute them. NBC’s Robert Hager reports.

The report found that the majority of the 2001 ads promised substantial and rapid weight loss without diet or exercise. Boasted one such ad: “I lost 54 pounds without dieting or medication in less than six weeks!” Other claims falling into the too-good-to-be true category: Users can lose weight while eating more food; supplements can block absorption of fat; and products can cause weight loss in selective parts of the body.

No Quick-Fixes for Weight Loss

“It is important for consumers to understand there are no quick fixes, that is the message here – there are no quick fixes to weight loss,” said U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, commenting on the report at a press conference. The researchers did not test specific claims but the report said “many of the claims we reviewed are so contrary to existing scientific evidence, or so clearly unsupported by the available evidence, that there is little doubt that they are false or deceptive.”

People taken in by these claims lose not just by wasting money, their health also suffers because they remain overweight, the report said. Consumers were urged to apply more skepticism to “magic bullet” promises. “Now more than ever consumers need to be educated on nutrition by a reputable source,” said Lola O’Rourke, a Seattle-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

February, 2003

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