FTC Releases Report on Weight-Loss Advertising

FTC to Hold Weight-Loss Advertising Workshop in November

For Release

The staff of the Federal Trade Commission today released a "Report on Weight-Loss Advertising: An Analysis of Current Trends." The report concludes that false or misleading claims, such as exaggerated weight loss without diet or exercise, are widespread in ads for weight-loss products, and appear to have increased over the last decade. The Commission also announced that it will hold a public workshop on November 19, 2002, to explore the impact that these ads have on public health and new approaches for fighting the proliferation of misleading claims for weight-loss products.

Many marketers, the report states, use false claims, misleading consumer testimonials, and deceptive before-and-after photos to market their products. According to the report, nearly 40 percent of the ads in the study, including ads that appeared in mainstream, national publications, made at least one representation that is almost certainly false and 55 percent of the ads made at least one representation that is very likely to be false. Often ads promised weight-loss results beyond what is possible. Nearly half of the ads claimed that the users could lose weight without diet and exercise. In one ad, for example, the headline proclaimed: "LOSE UP TO TWO POUNDS DAILY WITHOUT DIET OR EXERCISE!" Other ads cited rapid, prolonged weight-loss claims - such as claims that consumers can lose 8 to 10 pounds per week over an extended period of time.

"We have known for some time now that there is a serious problem with weight-loss product advertising. This report demonstrates the extent of that problem," said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris. "Reputable marketers continue to take care to avoid false and misleading claims, but it appears that too many unscrupulous marketers are making false claims promising dramatic and effortless weight loss to sell their products. It is not fair to consumers; it is not fair to legitimate businesses, it is illegal, and it will not be tolerated."

The report, which examined 300 promotions that appeared in all major forms of media between February and May 2001, was prepared with the assistance of the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management (PHWM). The Partnership is a coalition of representatives from science, academia, the health care profession, government, commercial enterprises, and organizations whose mission is to promote sound guidance on achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

"There is no such thing as a miracle pill for weight loss," Surgeon General Richard Carmona said. "The surest and safest way to weight loss and healthier living is by combining healthful eating and exercising. First eat healthfully - cut fats, eat at least five servings of fruit a day, and cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink. Next, get some physical actvity in yor day. Walking just 30 minutes a day, five days a week can reduce weight, and make you feel better."

According to the report, a comparison of current ads to ads that ran in 1992 suggests that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of weight-loss products and the amount of deceptive weight-loss advertising, during the last decade. The report noted two major trends: 1) a shift away from weight-loss products advertised as "low-calorie meal-replacements" in 1992 to pills and other products that commonly claimed to work without diet or exercise in 2001; and 2) that although ads from both 1992 and 2001 contain deceptive or false claims, the recent ads were much more likely to make specific misleading performance promises.

Since 1990, the Commission has filed 93 cases challenging false and misleading weight-loss claims involving over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, commercial weight-loss centers, weight-loss devices and exercise equipment. Despite the unprecedented level of FTC enforcement over the last decade though, misleading and deceptive ads continue to saturate the market.

According to health and nutrition experts, many of the weight-loss products and programs most heavily advertised are either unproven or unsafe, and frustrate efforts to promote healthy weight-loss efforts by promising unrealistic results.

"As health professionals, we are concerned about the epidemic of obesity and are equally concerned about false and misleading claims in advertising of weight-loss products and services," said George L. Blackburn, M.D., PhD, chair in nutrition medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the PHWM. "Many promise immediate success without the need to reduce caloric intake or increase physical activity. The use of deceptive, false, or misleading claims in weight loss advertising is rampant and potentially dangerous. Many supplements, in particular, are of unproven value or have been linked to serious health risks."

Weight Loss Advertising Workshop

To address this growing problem of deceptive weight-loss advertising, the FTC is separately announcing a one-day workshop on November 19, 2002 to provide a public forum to explore the impact that these ads have on public health and new approaches for fighting the proliferation of misleading claims for weight-loss products.

Consumer Education

The weight-loss report, as well as resources for consumers, businesses, and the press, is available at www.ftc.gov/dietfit. The FTC has the following tips for consumers who are interested in weight-loss products or programs:

  • Products and programs that promise quick and easy weight loss are bogus. To lose weight, you have to lower your intake of calories and increase your physical activity.
  • The faster you lose weight, the more likely you are to gain it back. Experts recommend a goal of about a pound a week.
  • There are no miracle weight-loss products. Be skeptical of products and programs that claim they can keep weight off permanently. Be skeptical about exaggerated claims.

Consumers who wish advice on how to find a healthy weight loss plan should visit the PHWM Web site at www.consumer.gov/weightloss.

Copies of the weight loss report, the complaint in the Bio Lab case, and the consumer education materials are available on the FTC's Web site at www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

(FTC Matter No. P014510)

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Brenda Mack,
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2182
Staff Contact:
Richard Cleland,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3088

Walter Gross,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3319