Natural Foods Merchandiser

FTC Looks to Toughen Weight-Loss Advertising Rules

New regulations developed with the help of natural foods industry experts, scientists, health professionals and media executives should put some teeth in the Federal Trade Commission's enforcement against diet product advertisements that make false claims.

Agency officials believe weight-loss advertising is a problem and are hunting for ways to deal with it. The FTC began wrestling more publicly and vigorously with diet ads in September when regulators published a 40-page study blasting diet advertising and followed up in November with a workshop called "Deception in Weight Loss Advertising," held at FTC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The FTC plans to telescope more of its resources to cracking down on diet advertising in all media, said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris during the workshop. But any challenge to the truth of weight-loss claims must involve the government, the industry and the media as well, he said.

The agency is expected to announce how it will proceed with regulations and enforcement by the end of January—and not a moment too soon, said some workshop participants.

The media—especially the are so flooded with ads larded with absurd claims that consumers are rightfully wary about any diet-related ads, and this is harmful to the industry, said Michael McGuffin, American Herbal Products Association president, in an interview after the workshop. McGuffin was on one of the three panels at the event.

"Our business is only as healthy as our customers," McGuffin said. "When customers are being ripped off by illegal ads and illegal products, that puts us at a disadvantage." If industry, government and the media work together to eliminate false diet advertisements, he said, "we're going to see not only better business, but a healthier customer because they are not going to be distracted by poorly advertised products."

Van Hubbard, director of the Division of Nutrition Research Coordination at the National Institutes of Health, said the problem of obesity in the United States is complicated, growing and "not one in which we have made much progress."

One way to help pin down the problem, he said during the workshop, is to "dismiss from the environment some of these messages" found in advertisements.

McGuffin said he is pleased the FTC has begun to throw its weight around. "I can't conceive of them going too far," he said.

"They are making a lot of noise, and I take that to mean they are intending to do something. The FTC is not only doing their enforcement job, but they have also taken on the role of instigator," McGuffin said. "They are the champions for, the vocal champions for, developing a partnership [between industry, the media and government]. I think it's a challenge and an invitation we ought to take."

Whatever action the FTC takes, McGuffin expects it to have little effect on retailers.

It could be tougher for publishers and broadcasters, however, since during his presentation Muris singled out the media for increased scrutiny. After the event he told reporters that the FTC is willing to be tough on media outlets that publish or broadcast diet and health ads with misleading claims. He also said he didn't think FTC attempts to regulate the media with regard to false weight-loss claims would contradict the First Amendment.

Anthony Almada, president, founder and chief scientific officer of IMAGINutrition Inc., in Laguna Niguel, Calif., said in an interview after the workshop that he welcomes heightened FTC scrutiny, but he doubts it will lead to much. "The question is can they act more aggressively than in the past? The answer would appear to be no," he said. "That's why they are trying to engage trade associations and the media."

Almada said the advertising end of the industry is desperate for rigorous federal oversight. The bulk of products hawked online, on cable channels and in the tabloids make claims that simply cannot be backed up by science, he said.

At the same time, Almada said he hopes the commissioners listen to plenty of voices outside of academia.

Doug Brown is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 11

False Claims

The 10-member panel convened by the FTC determined these eight claims often used in ads are "scientifically unfeasible":

  • Consumers who use the advertised product can safely lose more than 3 pounds per week for a period of more than four weeks.

  • Consumers who use the advertised product can lose a substantial amount of weight while still enjoying unlimited amounts of high-calorie foods.

  • Consumers who use the advertised product can lose a substantial amount of weight without reducing their caloric intake or increasing their physical activity.

  • Consumers can lose a substantial amount of weight through the use of an advertised product that is worn on the body or rubbed into the skin.

  • Consumers who use the advertised product can lose weight only from those body parts where they wish to lose weight.

  • The advertised product will cause a substantial amount of weight loss through the blockage or absorption of fat or calories.

  • The advertised product will cause a substantial amount of weight loss for all users.

  • The advertised product will cause permanent weight loss.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 11

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