Consumers may soon be seeing fewer advertisements for weight-loss products that promise quick and easy methods to shed pounds -- often with no evidence to back up the claims.
The Federal Trade Commission launched a national campaign last week to urge the media to more closely scrutinize weight-loss product ads and voluntarily reject those that appear to be fraudulent.
The FTC hopes the move will curtail what the agency says is a growing number of misleading ads in newspapers, magazines and cable television stations across the nation. About 55% of ads for weight loss products contain false information, according to a 2002 FTC report.
"There is no magic bullet for weight loss," said Richard Cleland, assistant director for the division of advertising practices at the FTC. "We're trying to protect the public from those who claim there is one."
Americans spend an estimated $37 billion a year for weight-loss products, which include everything from diet books to creams and wraps, all marketed as a way to drop extra pounds. The FTC issued a "red-flag" brochure, available over its Internet site at www.ftc.gov, to aid the media and consumers in spotting potentially bogus ads. Fraud should be suspected when a company claims its weight-loss product will result in:
* Weight loss of 2 pounds or more a week for a month, or without dieting or exercise.
* Substantial weight loss, no matter what or how much the consumer eats.
* Substantial weight loss by blocking the absorption of fat or calories.
* Substantial weight loss for all users.
* Substantial weight loss by wearing the product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.
The 18-page brochures applies only to nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, creams, wraps, devices and patches used for weight loss.
Excluded from the FTC's campaign are prescription drugs, meal replacement products, low-calorie foods or special diet programs.
"The FTC needs to go after these bogus claims. They really do hurt people," said Dr. David Heber, director for the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. "It's the overweight person sitting in their living room late at night watching cable who is really vulnerable to this kind of advertising."
FTC officials stressed its red-flag campaign is relying on voluntary compliance from the media. While there are no plans to legally target media companies that knowingly run false ads, Cleland said the agency hasn't ruled out doing so in the future.
Since the early 1990s, the FTC has brought more than 100 lawsuits against companies for allegedly selling fraudulent weight-loss products. Along with its new campaign, the agency last week announced a pair of $1-million settlements involving weight-loss products. One was with Universal Nutrition Corp., which used infomercials to market ThermoSlim, a product that claimed people could lose substantial weight while eating hamburgers, French fries and milkshakes. The other settlement was with Harry Siskind, former president of Mark Nutritionals, a now-defunct company that claimed its Body Solutions Weight Loss Formula would lead to weight loss without exercise.