Gimmicks, FTC warns

By Teresa McUsic, Special to the Star-Telegram


Last July, the Federal Trade Commission announced three enforcement actions against direct marketers of weight-loss products with false advertising claims.

January is the month for dieting, but don’t be tempted to try one of those get-thin-quick solutions. The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers that most of those products are not useful in losing weight and may even be harmful.

“There are no magic bullets or effortless ways to burn off fat. The only way to lose weight is to lower caloric intake and/or increase physical activity,” the FTC writes in its latest campaign, called “Red Flag: Bogus Weight Loss Claims.”

The FTC has identified seven particularly egregious claims that consumers should be wary of as they spend more than $35 billion annually to try to trim the physical flab.

Run, don’t walk, from ads that claim to:

• Cause weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise.

• Cause substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats.

• Cause permanent weight loss (even when the consumer stops using the product).

• Block the absorption of fat or calories to enable you to lose substantial weight.

• Safely enable you to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks.

• Cause substantial weight loss for all users.

• Cause substantial weight loss by wearing it on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

Weight-loss advertisements, once only found in supermarket tabloids and in the back of certain magazines, show up now in all forms of media and more and more often. In a study released last year, the FTC looked into nearly 300 such advertisements from a variety of media, including broadcast and cable television, infomercials, radio, magazines newspapers, tabloids, direct mail, commercial e-mail (spam) and Internet sites.

The use of false or misleading claims in weight-loss advertising was rampant. According to the study, nearly 40 percent of the ads made at least one representation that almost certainly was false and 55 percent of the ads made at least one representation that was very likely false or, at the very least, lacked adequate information.

The FTC looked at ads for pills with eggplant that “block” the fat from being absorbed in your body, earrings that claimed to “disrupt the formation of fat cells” and pills that destroy fat cells developed by “scientists active in the space program.”

While such ads appear laughable, to many people with a weight problem they may appear to be a solution of last resort.

And the problem these ads address is indeed serious.

Six out of 10 Americans are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. surgeon general. And being overweight or obese is the second-leading cause of preventable death, behind smoking, resulting in about 300,000 deaths per year.

Unfortunately, because most dietary products are not drugs, they don’t need to be proven safe or effective before they are sold at your local grocery or drug store. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t even register such products, and it can only get them off the shelves after it has proven them unsafe.

Experts warn that, in addition to avoiding diet products that make false claims, don’t sign up with a diet center until you have ensured that its counselors have received property nutrition training.