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FTC: Weight-Loss Ads Often Deceive

Advertising: Report says 55% of those studied lack proof or probably are false. Agency implores nation's media outlets to act as gatekeeper.


You've seen or heard the too-good-to-be-true weight-loss advertisements: No diet or exercise required; lose eight to 10 pounds per week; take it off and keep it off. The Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday that many of these ads are exactly that--too good to be true and are getting more outlandish each year despite increased enforcement actions.

The FTC issued a report that did not single out specific products, companies or ads, but studied about 300 advertisements from 2001. The FTC said that 55% of the weight-loss ads made claims that lack proof or probably were false, such as "I lost 46 pounds in 30 days!"

The report said about 61% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, and consumers spent about $35 billion in 2000 on weight-loss products.

When pressed for specific examples of deceptive ads, FTC officials cited a list on its Web site of several dozen recent cases in which it is pursuing enforcement action.

Among those cases are the Hollywood 48-Hour Miracle Diet and Enforma Natural Products' Fat Trapper and Exercise in a Bottle. Other advertisements tackled by the FTC included abdominal machines that claimed to produce washboard abs through electrical stimulation. In most cases, the FTC is seeking to have the advertisements pulled and to get reimbursement for consumers.

The latest FTC case, announced Tuesday, was against a Canadian company, Bio Lab, accused of making false weight-loss claims and false claims for quick cellulite loss. The FTC said that the company's ads ran in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers.

The FTC report said deceptive ads contribute to the losing battle against obesity, which is second only to smoking in causing preventable deaths annually. The ads have become more misleading in their claims in the last 10 years, the FTC said, and the agency implored the nation's major media outlets to do more to police those advertisements and keep them out of print or off the air to protect the public.

"There is some frustration and concern," said J. Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Clearly, enforcement action has to be part of the solution, but we need to think about other ways of getting the message out."

The FTC study tracked advertisements listed in specific publications in 1992 and 2001 to see how the ads had changed. The latter produced particularly disturbing results, Beales said.

In 1992, according to the report, 57% of advertisements were for low-calorie meal replacements. But by 2001, the report said, two-thirds of the ads were for dietary supplements and claimed that diet and exercise were unnecessary.

Some ads claimed results of weight loss of eight pounds to 10 pounds a week, far higher than most experts say is realistic.

The latest ads, Beales said, were of the sort that could lead to serious health consequences if someone who had been under a doctors' orders to lose weight through diet and exercise stopped in the hope that a pill would do the trick instead.

Lucille A. Olson, a Los Angeles County coordinator for the 54-year-old national support group called TOPS, or Take Off Pounds Sensibly, said that she found those types of ads most egregious.

"People have died from some of those diet supplements. They are tricking people who are looking for a magic bullet," said Olson, who, with the help of TOPS, has lost 110 pounds over the last three years.

Both Olson and Beale added that most Americans seeking to lose weight have difficulty realizing that loss of half a pound or a pound a week is the safest and most effective goal.

Regarding the FTC's proposal that media outlets examine the veracity of weight-loss advertisements and refuse to run those making egregious claims, Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. said it would clearly "run afoul of constitutional free speech guarantees."

Still, Beales and other federal officials said that it can and should be done if a few standards are followed, such as refusing to run ads that claim diet and exercise are not required.

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