FTC Testifies on the Marketing of Dietary Supplements to Children

For Release

“The Federal Trade Commission has a longstanding and active program to combat fraudulent and deceptive advertising claims about health benefits and safety of dietary supplements, especially when it comes to products marketed to or for children,” said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. In presenting testimony today to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Beales described the agency’s efforts to police the supplement marketplace, citing several examples of actions taken against deceptive marketing of children’s products, including three cases brought to date in 2004.

Beales emphasized that Commission law requires that claims about the safety and efficacy of all health-related products, including supplements, be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence before they are made. “The Commission seeks to ensure that consumers get accurate information so they can make informed decisions about how to manage their own healthcare,” stated Director Beales. He cited a recent survey showing that more than one third of U.S. adults are turning to alternative medicine, including herbal products, enzymes, and other supplements, and referred to industry estimates that the market for children’s supplements also has been growing.

The testimony noted that the supplement category encompasses a broad range of products, from vitamins and minerals to herbals and hormones. Products promoted specifically to children extend beyond traditional multivitamins to include preventives and cures for a variety of childhood ailments ranging from colds to more serious conditions like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD). Recently, Beales noted, the Commission has begun seeing products promoted for children’s weight loss.

According to the testimony, the FTC has committed a significant portion of its consumer protection resources to combating false, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims in advertising for healthcare products, including dietary supplements. The FTC focuses its enforcement priorities on national advertising claims for products with unproven benefits; products promoted via the Internet and other means to treat or cure serious diseases; and products that may present significant safety concerns to consumers. In recent years the Commission has brought several actions against deceptive promotions of supplements to children as part of its broader supplement enforcement program. The FTC also has made an effort to educate parents about the appropriate and safe use of children’s supplements, the testimony noted.

“In the last ten years, thirteen of the Commission’s actions against deceptive supplement advertising have addressed children’s products, including three actions to date in 2004,” Beales said. According to the testimony, these actions involved products that allegedly made unfounded promises to prevent colds, products allegedly touted as safe and natural alternatives for the treatment of AD/HD, and products promoted to help children lose weight. Some of the challenged products contained stimulants or hormones that raise safety concern, or herbs with known toxicity.

In describing the FTC’s dietary supplement enforcement program, Beales highlighted the FTC’s coordination with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), noting that, since December 2002, the FTC and FDA have intensified their efforts through formation of a joint enforcement task force. The joint efforts have enabled the FTC to bring more than 40 actions targeting fraudulently marketed supplements and other health products in the 18 months since the inception of the task force, Beales stated. Beales also addressed deception in the weight-loss advertising market, an area of particular concern to the agency. “The Commission’s efforts to stop the deceptive marketing of weight loss products to children is part of a larger ongoing effort to stop weight loss scams,” said Beales. In November 2002, the FTC held a public workshop to explore approaches, as well as traditional law enforcement, to curb ongoing weight-loss fraud. Based, in part, on the workshop, the Commission launched a new initiative to enlist the media in screening out facially false weight loss ads before they are run. As part of this effort, the FTC published, and widely disseminated to television, newspapers, and magazine publishers, its “Red Flag: Bogus Weight Loss Claims” brochure, which provides media outlets with easy guidelines for spotting and stopping false claims. “Thus far,” Beales said, “the response from media has been encouraging.”

In conclusion, the testimony noted that the FTC will continue to have an active program challenging deceptive marketing of dietary supplements in general and children’s supplements specifically. (Beales Testimony/KidsSupp–06/16/04)

The Commission approved the testimony by a vote of 5-0.

NOTE: The views expressed in the written testimony represent those of the FTC. The oral presentation and responses to questions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Commission or any individual Commissioner.

Copies of the FTC’s testimony are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://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 in English or Spanish (bilingual counselors are available to take complaints), 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. P014521)

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Brenda Mack
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2182
Staff Contact:
Michele Rusk or Richard Cleland
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3148