FTC Testifies on the Marketing of Dietary Supplements

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“Unfounded and exaggerated claims for dietary supplements have proliferated,” said
Howard Beales, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. In presenting testimony today before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Beales also noted that the Commission’s enforcement actions have expanded as well. “Since last December, the FTC has challenged deceptive advertising for health care products with more than $1 billion in sales, most of that for dietary supplements,” Beales said.

Beales noted that the FTC’s mission 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 or safety of dietary supplements. The testimony noted that the dietary supplement industry encompasses a broad range of products, from vitamins and minerals to herbals and hormones, and represents a substantial segment of the consumer health care market, with industry sales for 2001 estimated to be $17.7 billion.

According to the testimony, ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy of marketing for dietary supplements is a priority of the FTC’s consumer protection agenda. The FTC focuses its enforcement priorities on products that present significant safety concerns for consumers, on advertising making unfounded claims of treatment of serious diseases, and on large national advertising campaigns for products for which the supporting science is nonexistent or clearly inadequate, the testimony noted. Over the past decade, the FTC has filed more than 100 law enforcement actions challenging false or unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy or safety of a wide variety of supplements. In the past year, the Commission has filed or settled cases challenging claims for supplements marketed for almost every imaginable health problem: to treat serious diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, emphysema, diabetes, and

Alzheimer’s; to cause effortless, substantial and immediate weight loss; to stop snoring; and even to increase bust size. The FTC’s remedies address not just economic injury to consumers but potential injury to health as well.

In addition, Beales highlighted the FTC’s coordination with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and noted since December 2002, the FTC and FDA have intensified their efforts through formation of a joint enforcement task force. The two agencies have taken joint action against two large targets in the past six months and have issued a combined total of more than 200 warning letters, cyber letters, and e-mail advisories to various companies marketing dangerous or fraudulent health products over the Internet, Beales said.

Beales also addressed deception in the weight-loss advertising market, an area of particular concern to the agency. In September 2002, the FTC staff released its “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 of weight-loss products. The report analyzed claims for 300 advertisements disseminated during 2001, and concluded that use of false or misleading weight-loss claims in advertising is widespread. The analysis showed that more than half of the ads collected made claims that were almost certainly false or at the very least likely to lack substantiation.

In light of the findings of the Weight Loss Advertising Report, the FTC held a public workshop in November 2002, to explore both the impact of deceptive ads on the public health and new approaches to finding the proliferation of misleading claims. A report on the results of the workshop will be released in the next few months.

The testimony also noted that the FTC has been meeting with members of the media and other interested parties to encourage them to weed out facially false weight-loss advertising claims. The Commission will publish soon a brief checklist to aid media screening of weight-loss ads.

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

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, 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. P974506)

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Brenda Mack
Office of Public Affairs
Staff Contact:
Michelle Rusk
Bureau of Consumer Protection