Sound familiar? Heard these claims before? If you have ever picked up a newspaper or magazine, or turned on the TV, you probably have seen advertisements that tout these or similar claims.
As part of its continuing effort to ensure that consumers get accurate and reliable information about weight loss products and programs, the Federal Trade Commission today announced "Operation Waistline," a coordinated, long-term consumer education and law enforcement program. The goals of "Operation Waistline" are to alert consumers to misleading and deceptive weight loss claims, to steer them to accurate information about healthy weight loss, and to continue to bring law enforcement actions against those in the industry who violate the law. The FTC will work in partnership with the Weight-control Information Network, or WIN, established by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
The seven cases announced today by the FTC focus on claims, in advertisements and promotional materials, that consumers can lose weight quickly and easily by using anything from "Fat Burners" diet supplements to skin patches to shoe insoles or cellulose-bile products. Collectively, proposed settlements in these cases would require the respondents to pay a total of $787,500 in consumer redress or disgorgement to the U.S. Treasury.
As part of "Operation Waistline," Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection is sending a letter to more than 100 publications that ran the weight loss advertisements challenged in the Commission's complaints. The letter calls on these publications to step up their advertising review efforts to prevent blatantly deceptive weight loss ads from reaching consumers.
"Today's cases demonstrate that fraudulent and misleading diet promotions are still successful," said Jodie Bernstein. "Even though some of these weight loss ads sound too good to be true, consumers' anxiety about their weight and diet can easily overwhelm their better judgment. Real health consequences associated with obesity -- such as heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer -- can also make some consumers easy prey for diet fraud hucksters," Bernstein added.
Since 1927, the FTC has brought nearly 140 enforcement actions against weight loss companies. Americans spend an estimated $6 billion dollars a year on fraudulent diet products, and the combined sales in today's actions exceed $34 million. Health experts report that a majority of the U.S. population is now overweight and that the epidemic of obesity costs consumers over $70 billion a year in added health costs.
Today's cases include four different categories of weight-loss products: cellulose/ox bile; devices; low calorie diets/very low calorie diets (lcd/vlcd); and supplements. The cases are against:
- AmeriFIT, Inc., a Bloomfield, Connecticut based-company that sold diet supplements using the trade name "Fat Burners" and "Fast Burners." The tablets and drinks were sold under 11 different names and were marketed as part of the "Fat Burners System" -- a purported combined diet and exercise program;
- KCD Incorporated, KCD Holdings, Inc., Deerfield Corporation, Clark M. Holcomb, Bonnie L. Richards, and Gerald E. Hatto. The California-based companies and their officers market and sell "SeQuester," an over-the-counter cellulose-bile product; and
- Interactive Medical Technologies, Ltd., Effective Health, Inc., William E. Shell, M.D. and William Pelzer, Jr. The Los Angeles-based companies and their officers marketed and sold "Lipitrol," a cellulose-bile product directly to consumers, health care practitioners and small distributors through direct mail solicitations. These respondents also assisted the KCD respondents' marketing of SeQuester;
- 2943174 Canada, Inc., doing business as United Research Center, Inc., and its president Patrice Runner. The Montreal, Quebec-based company sold the "Svelt-PATCH," a purported transdermal skin patch, through mail order in the United States;
- Guildwood Direct Limited, based in Niagara Falls, New York, operated catalog and mail-order houses. The company advertised and sold "Slimming Insoles," an insole worn in each shoe that purportedly causes weight loss through the principle of "reflexology": every time the user takes a step, the insoles massage certain reflex zones that are connected to the digestive system. By stimulating the digestive system, the insoles purportedly cause the body to burn stored fat; and
- Body Well, Inc., based in New York City, and its principal, Gerard du Passage, operated a direct mail order business, and advertised and sold insoles as "Slimming Soles"; and
- Dean Distributors, Inc., doing business as Advanced Health Care Systems, Cambridge Direct Sales, and MediBase. The Monterey, California-based companies marketed low calorie and very low calorie diet programs through a multi-level distribution system and directly to independent physicians. Their programs include "Food for Life Weight Management System" and the "Cambridge Diet."
The complaints cite various advertising statements and testimonials from consumers claiming weight loss and/or health benefits that allegedly can be achieved by using the different products. According to the complaints, the companies failed to provide adequate substantiation for their claims that the various products would, among other things, cause significant and long-term weight loss; reduce body fat; control appetite; increase metabolism; reduce serum cholesterol; and regulate blood sugar levels.
In addition, the FTC maintains that some of the companies:
- made unsubstantiated claims that the testimonials used in their ads reflect the typical experiences of consumers who use their products; and
- falsely claimed that scientific studies show that their products are effective.
Under the proposed consent agreements to settle these allegations, announced today for public comment, the respondents would be prohibited from making any of the challenged claims in the future, unless they have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support them. Some settlements also would require the respondents to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support any representation they make about the benefits, performance, efficacy, or safety of any food or dietary supplement, or other weight-loss products they advertise or sell. Some settlements would further prohibit the respondents from misrepresenting the results of any test, study or research.
The individual settlements include the following provisions:
The order with AmeriFIT would require the company to pay $100,000 to the FTC for disgorgement and would prohibit AmeriFIT from using the trade name "Fat Burners" unless it is used as part of the trade name "Fat Burners Diet, Exercise and Supplement System" and the material containing that name clearly and prominently contains the following disclosure:
"THE DIETARY SUPPLEMENT IN THIS SYSTEM IS FOR NUTRITIONAL USE ONLY AND DOES NOT CONTRIBUTE TO WEIGHT LOSS OR LOSS OF BODY FAT."
In the KCD/Interactive Medical cases, there are four separate settlements. The Interactive Medical, Shell, and Pelzer orders address their role in assisting the KCD respondents' marketing of SeQuester, and would prohibit these respondents from providing means and instrumentalities or substantial assistance to any person who they know or should know is making any false or unsubstantiated benefit, performance, efficacy or safety claim for any weight loss, fat or cholesterol reduction product or program. The orders also contain various reporting requirements to help the FTC monitor the respondents' compliance with their provisions.
The KCD order would require KCD Inc., KCD Holdings, and Bonnie L. Richards to pay $150,000 in consumer redress. The IMT order would require Interactive Medical and Effective Health to pay $35,000 in consumer redress.
The Shell order would require Dr. Shell to post a $1 million performance bond before marketing, selling or holding any ownership in any business that advertises or sells Lipitrol or any cellulose-bile product. The order would also require that Shell post a $250,000 performance bond before marketing or selling any weight loss, fat reduction or cholesterol reduction product or program to consumers, other than his treatment of patients in connection with his private medical practice.
Finally, the order would require Shell to pay $20,000 in consumer redress.
The order with United Research would require the respondents to pay $375,000 in consumer redress.
The order with Guildwood would require the respondent to pay $40,000 for consumer redress to be suspended upon payment of $7,500 once the order becomes final. The order would also prohibit Guildwood from representing that Advance Bio/Natural Research Labs is a bona fide, independent research organization that has published a report containing the results of valid, independent testing.
The order with Body Well would require the respondents to pay $100,000 for consumer redress/disgorgement and would prohibit them from violating the FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule, which, among other things, requires that purchasers be notified if the products are not delivered in a timely manner. Body Well customers seeking refund information should call 1-800-621-1790.
(In all of the above instances, if redress is impracticable, the funds would be paid to the U.S. Treasury.)
The order with Dean Distributors sets out standards for the type of evidence that would be required to support the various maintenance claims made in their advertisements. In addition, any ad claims the respondents make about maintaining weight loss would have to include the statement: "For many dieters, weight loss is temporary." The order would further require that any claim about the safety of the respondents' programs be accompanied by a clear disclosure about the need for physician monitoring to minimize the potential health risks.
The Commission votes to accept the consent agreements for public comment were 5-0.
A summary describing the consent agreements will appear in the Federal Register shortly and will be subject to public comment for 60 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make them final. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.
The FTC's free materials about weight-loss products -- a brochure titled, "The Skinny on Dieting," a bookmark, and a consumer alert -- are available at www.ftc.gov on the Internet or from the FTC's Public Reference Branch. Consumers also can access the WIN network by calling 1-800-946-8098 or by accessing the WIN Web site: (www.niddk.nih.gov/NutritionDocs.html). A listing of prior FTC weight loss cases is also available on the FTC's Web site.
NOTE: Consent agreements are for settlement purposes only and do not constitute an admission of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $11,000.
Copies of the complaints, proposed consent agreements and analyses of the agreements to assist the public in commenting on these cases are also available on the Internet at the FTC's World Wide Web Site at: http://www.ftc.gov or by calling 202-326-3627. FTC documents are also available from the Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest FTC news as it is announced, call the FTC's NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
Justin Dingfelder or Jeffrey Feinstein
202-326-3017 or 202-326-2372
Seattle Regional Office
Laureen France or Nadine Samter
915 Second Avenue, Suite 2896
Seattle, Washington 98174
206-220-6350 or 206-220-4471
Michael Bloom or Ronald Waldman
New York Regional Office
150 William Street, 13th Floor
New York, New York 10038-2603
212-264-1201 or 212-264-1242
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Richard L. Cleland, 202-326-3088
Office of Public Affairs
Richard L. Cleland, 202-326-3088