FTC cracks down on weight-loss ads, issues guidance to publishers to guard against false claim advertisements

WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday announced a law enforcement initiative stopping national marketers that used deceptive advertising claims to peddle fad weight-loss products, from food additives and skin cream to dietary supplements.

The action was welcomed by industry. “[The Council for Responsible Nutrition] supports FTC’s efforts to crack down on those companies making outrageous claims," Steve Mister, CRN president and CEO, said. "All products marketed for weight-loss, whether they are sold as dietary supplements, food additives, cosmetics or homeopathic drugs, are required to have evidence that substantiates the claims they make,” he said. “FTC’s announcement is also a good reminder to consumers that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

“Operation Failed Resolution” is part of the FTC’s ongoing effort to stop misleading claims for products promoting easy weight loss and slimmer bodies. The marketers of Sensa, who exhorted consumers to “sprinkle, eat, and lose weight," will pay $26.5 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they deceived consumers with unfounded weight-loss claims and misleading endorsements. The FTC will make these funds available for refunds to consumers who bought Sensa.

The agency also announced charges against the marketers of two other products that made unfounded promises, including L’Occitane, which claimed that its skin cream would slim users’ bodies but had no science to back up that claim, and HCG Diet Direct, which marketed an unproven human hormone that has been touted by hucksters for more than half a century as a weight-loss treatment.

And it announced a partial settlement in a fourth case, LeanSpa, an operation that allegedly deceptively promoted acai berry and “colon cleanse” weight-loss supplements through fake news websites.

“Resolutions to lose weight are easy to make but hard to keep,” stated Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “And the chances of being successful just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing cream on your thighs, or using a supplement are slim to none. The science just isn’t there.”

In total, the weight-loss marketers will pay approximately $34 million for consumer redress. In addition to the $26.5 million to be paid by Sensa, L’Occitane will pay $450,000, and the LeanSpa settling defendants will surrender assets totalling an estimated $7.3 million.  

The judgment against the HCG Diet Direct defendants is suspended due to their inability to pay.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission updated guidance for publishers and broadcasters on how to spot phony weight-loss claims when screening ads for publication.

“Gut Check: A Reference Guide for Media on Spotting False Weight-Loss Claims” describes seven weight loss claims that can’t be true and should prompt a “gut check” – a second look to make sure publishers are not running advertisements with claims known to be false. The guide also contains advice on dealing with problematic areas like consumer testimonials and fine print disclosures. The Gut Check guidance updates the Red Flag Bogus Weight-Loss Claims reference guide for media that the FTC first published in 2003.

In a letter that is being sent to publishers and broadcasters, the FTC asks them to share the revised guidance with their sales staffs and screen out diet ads that make “gut check” claims, including: 

  • Causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise;
  • Causes substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats;
  • Causes permanent weight loss even after the consumer stops using product;
  • Blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight;
  • Safely enables consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks;
  • Causes substantial weight loss for all users; or
  • Causes substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

“It’s no secret that the best way to lose weight is to focus on gradual weight loss over time through healthy eating, regular exercise and supplementing as appropriate,” CRN's Mister noted. “There are beneficial weight management dietary supplements on the market, and supplements also help fill nutrient gaps for those people not getting all the nutrients they need from food alone. Whether it’s a topical cream, a dietary supplement, or a diet plan, consumers should be wary of products that promise to make weight loss easy.” 

The FTC also has information for consumers about weight loss, including a teaser web site designed to reach people who are surfing online for weight-loss products. At first glance, the web site appears to advertise a new product, “FatFoe,” that guarantees fast, easy weight loss for all users, with no diet or exercise necessary to lose up to 10 pounds per week permanently. In reality, the claims made for “FatFoe” are almost always false or misleading. When consumers try to order FatFoe, they learn the ad is a warning from the FTC about diet rip-offs.



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