FTC Releases Guidance to Media on False Weight-Loss Claims

Staff Report on Weight-Loss Advertising Workshop Made Available

For Release

The staff of the Federal Trade Commission today announced its “Red Flag” education campaign to assist media outlets voluntarily to screen out weight-loss product ads containing claims that are too good to be true. The announcement is the culmination of a workshop held on November 19, 2002, and meetings with trade associations and individual media outlets over the last year. To support the voluntary initiative, the FTC released a media reference guide entitled “Red Flag: Bogus Weight Loss Claims.”

“Unfortunately, there are way too many ads for scientifically impossible weight-loss products in the popular media,” said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris. “The media should institute screening programs to ‘red flag’ deceitful weight-loss ads and refuse to run them. To help media advertising staff identify bogus claims, we’re providing thousands of free copies of the ‘Red Flag’ booklet.”

The media reference guide builds upon the FTC’s staff report, “Deception in Weight-Loss Advertising Workshop: Seizing Opportunities and Building Partnerships to Stop Weight-Loss Fraud,” also released today. The staff report provides an overview and analysis of the workshop discussion and relevant public comments.

Background – 2002 Weight Loss Product Advertising Workshop

In September 2002, the FTC staff issued a report on weight-loss advertising that concluded that, despite vigorous FTC law enforcement and consumer education efforts, fraudulent and misleading weight-loss advertising was widespread and on the rise. Following up on that report, in an effort to identify alternative approaches to curbing weight-loss fraud, the FTC held a public workshop on deception in weight-loss product advertising on November 19, 2002. The goal of the workshop was to explore new approaches to stop false weight-loss advertising. Participants in the workshop included, among others, scientists with expertise in the study and treatment of overweight individuals and obesity, weight-loss industry members, and media representatives. The workshop consisted of three panels. The first panel considered whether certain weight-loss claims, such as claims that promote substantial weight loss without reducing caloric intake or increasing exercise, are feasible. The second panel considered ways to improve industry self-regulation of weight-loss advertising. The final panel focused on the feasibility and challenges of ad screening.

The Report

The FTC staff report issued today summarizes the proceedings of the November 2002 weight-loss advertising workshop and the pre- and post-workshop public comments, provides an analysis of the scientific feasibility of the eight weight-loss claims considered during the workshop, and offers recommendations for future action.

The staff report concludes that the claims are not scientifically feasible at the current time for nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, creams, wraps, devices, and patches, and that further guidance would assist the media in screening out these bogus claims. As a result, to assist in media screening, the FTC produced the reference guide released today. The reference guide is designed so that media outlets can screen out weight-loss ads through simple facial review, rather than in-depth investigation.

Media Guidance

The centerpiece of the FTC campaign is educational guidance to the media that identifies seven common weight-loss claims made for products available over-the-counter, including nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, creams, wraps, devices, and patches that are scientifically infeasible at the current time. These claims include:

  • Causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month, or more without dieting or exercise.

  • Causes substantial weight loss, no matter what or how much the consumer eats.

  • Causes permanent weight loss (even when the consumer stops using the product).

  • Blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight.

  • Safely enables consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks.

  • Causes substantial weight loss for all users.

  • Causes substantial weight loss by wearing it on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

“We know that no publication or station wants to print or air false weight-loss claims,” Chairman Muris said. “This booklet provides specific examples of bogus claims, along with explanations that will allow media advertising personnel to avoid bogus weight loss claims and stop them before they injure consumers. We encourage the media to use it.”

The Commission vote to release the staff report was 5-0.

Copies of the FTC staff weight-loss report 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. P034509)

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Brenda Mack
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2182
Staff Contact:

Richard Cleland
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-3088