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Diet Ads Are Hard to Swallow

Consumers: Too many people buy into claims that say some products can help them lose weight without exercising or changing eating habits.

September 30, 2002|SALLY SQUIRES | WASHINGTON POST

"Knock off your unwanted weight and fat deposits at warp speeds! You can lose 18 pounds in one week!"

"Lose up to eight to 10 pounds per week--no dieting, no strenuous exercise."

"No exercise, and eat as much as you want--the more you eat, the more you lose, we'll show you how."

Those are just three of the misleading, deceptive and false diet product ads cited by the Federal Trade Commission recently in a report written in conjunction with the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management, a coalition of business, science, government, health-care and public interest groups.

Some ads promise that you can eat all the cake you want--as well as ice cream, porterhouse steaks, fried chicken and hot fudge--and still lose weight. These weight-loss products, which range from dietary supplements to videos, often guarantee instant success and long-term results, and are bolstered by testimonials, including this one cited by the report:

"Seven weeks ago, I weighed 268 pounds. Now I am down to just 148! During this time, I didn't change my eating habits at all."

Just do the math. That claim would work out to a loss of 120 pounds in seven weeks, or about 17 pounds per week. That's more than 2 pounds a day.

The FTC said these types of diet ads are proliferating and generated $35 billion in sales in 2000. The deceptive ads bombard consumers on television, radio, the Internet, in magazines and in newspapers. Earlier this month, the FTC also announced that on Sept. 3 it had accused a Canadian corporation operating in the United States under the name Bio Lab with deceiving consumers through ads and sales of Quick Slim and Cellu-Fight. Quick Slim is a dietary supplement sold as a "fat blocker" that appeared in free-standing inserts that were distributed in major newspapers, including The Times.

So why do so many otherwise savvy consumers continue to reach for the quick fix when it comes to weight loss? "We are told we can buy our weight out with the right product," said Lynn McAfee, medical advocacy project director with the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, who described her lifelong struggle with obesity at the FTC news conference last week.

McAfee saw ads for weight-loss products. "Suddenly," she said, "it was not that my body or my will was in error, but that I could buy a secret.... Is there anyone in this room who would not choose to do something the easy way?"

Although the FTC did not name companies or products engaging in deceptive ad practices last week, the commission raised these advertisement red flags for consumers:

* Testimonials or the use of before-and-after photos. Nearly two-thirds of the 300 ads studied by the FTC included testimonials and 42% had before-and-after pictures. Rarely did either portray "realistic weight loss," the FTC said.

* Claims of rapid weight loss. The falsity of some claims, such as losing 8 to 10 pounds per week, "is obvious," the FTC noted.

* No diet or exercise required. "Despite the well-accepted prescription of diet and exercise for successful weight management," the report found, 42% of ads reviewed promoted an array of quick-fix pills, patches, potions and programs for effortless weight loss, and nearly two-thirds promised fast results.

* Clinically proven/doctor-approved claims on products. Found on about 40% of diet ads scrutinized by the FTC, these claims "may cause consumers to conclude mistakenly that the clinically proven benefits are substantial, whereas in fact, the difference between use of the product and dieting could be small."

* Natural/safe weight-loss claims. Nearly half of product ads made safety claims while almost three-quarters touted the products as "all natural." Safety is difficult to evaluate, the FTC concluded, "when so many ads fail to disclose the active ingredients." Other products, such as those containing the controversial herbal stimulant ephedra, disclosed ingredients "but did not include a health warning about possible adverse effects," making safety claims misleading.

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