The Federal Trade Commission's Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, J. Howard Beales, III, yesterday told a Senate subcommittee that although some dietary supplements offer the potential for real health benefits to consumers, as the market for these products has expanded, so too have unfounded or exaggerated claims.
Beales noted that the mission of the FTC is to prevent unfair competition and to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive practices in the marketplace. As part of this mission, the FTC has a longstanding and active program to combat fraudulent and deceptive advertising claims about the health benefits and safety of dietary supplements.
According to the testimony, ensuring the truthfulness of supplement ads is a priority of the FTC's consumer protection agenda. During the past decade, the Commission has filed more than 80 law enforcement actions challenging false or unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy or safety of a wide variety of supplements. These enforcement actions include four that challenged unqualified safety or no side effect claims for supplements containing ephedra, including products marketed as alternatives to street drugs such as Ecstacy, as well as body-building and energy supplements. In each of the cases, the FTC imposed orders that prohibit unsubstantiated safety claims and require a strong disclosure warning about safety risks in all future advertising and labeling by the respondents.
The testimony noted that ephedra is often marketed for use in weight loss. Last month the FTC staff released a "Report on Weight-Loss Advertising: An Analysis of Current Trends," which recognized the detrimental effects of obesity and addressed the serious challenges facing law enforcement agencies in their efforts to stop deceptive advertising for weight-loss products and services. The report analyzed claims from a non-random sample of 300 ads disseminated during the first half of 2001, including ads in all major forms of media. By comparing ads disseminated in 1992 and in 2001 in eight selected national magazines, the FTC staff looked at trends in the frequency of ads, the types of products marketed, and the most common advertising techniques. The analysis showed that more than half (55%) of the ads collected contained at least one representation that was very likely to be false or to lack substantiation. The historical comparison of magazine ads revealed a much higher frequency of questionable claims and marketing techniques in 2001 compared to a decade ago.
In light of the findings of the Weight Loss Advertising Report, Beales stated, the FTC is holding a public workshop on November 19, 2002 to explore both the impact of deceptive ads on the public health and new approaches to fighting the proliferation of misleading claims.
The Commission approved the testimony by a vote of 5-0.