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Fighting Bogus Ad Claims

October 05, 2002

As long as someone is willing to buy it, someone will sell snake oil. Americans in the 21st century shouldn't be laughing at the suckers of a previous era who lined up behind patent-medicine hucksters' horse-drawn wagons. We fall prey to our own brand of snake-oil salesmen, particularly those who promise to help us lose weight quickly.

A Federal Trade Commission study released last month said that of the 300 weight-loss ads it studied last year, more than half lacked proof of their claim and were probably false.

The ads' claims--"I lost 46 pounds in 30 days!"--or promises of six-pack abs through electronic stimulation appeal more to wishful thinking than to common sense or rational scrutiny.

More than 60% of U.S. adults are overweight. That translated in 2000 to about $35 billion spent on products claiming to aid weight loss.

In extreme cases, supposedly miraculous cures can kill. And advertising claims for such products grew more farfetched each year from 1992 to 2001, the FTC concluded. The report added that these misleading ads exacerbate this country's serious problem with obesity, which is second only to smoking as a cause of preventable deaths each year.

The media could do a better job of exercising their right and responsibility not to air or publish ads they deem deceiving.

But it's the FTC that has the access to expertise and is backed by the authority to enforce truth-in-advertising laws and to try to get reimbursements for consumers duped by bogus claims.

Buyers do indeed need to beware, and the best solution is for people to educate themselves about such basic health matters as exercise and nutrition, and then to squelch the little voice urging them to believe something that seems too good to be true.

At the same time, if the FTC became more aggressive in its investigations and pushed harder for prosecutions, a lot of unscrupulous sellers would also have reason to beware.

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