FTC Testifies on the Marketing of Dietary Supplements and Weight-Loss Products Containing Ephedra

"As the market for dietary supplements has expanded, so too have unfounded or exaggerated claims," said Howard Beales, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. In presenting testimony today before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, Beales also noted that the Commission’s enforcement actions have expanded as well. “Since December 2002, the Commission has targeted deceptive claims for more than $1 billion in health care products, a majority of which were dietary supplements,” Beales stated.

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 the advertising of health care products, and particularly dietary supplements, is a priority of the FTC’s consumer protection agenda. During the past decade, the FTC had filed more than 90 law enforcement actions challenging false or unsubstantiated claims about the efficacy or safety of a wide variety of supplements. These enforcement actions include seven cases challenging claims for ephedra products marketed for weight loss, body-building, and energy supplements, and as alternatives to street drugs such as Ecstasy. In each of these 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.

In September 2002, 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 of weight-loss products and services. The report analyzed claims from 300 advertisements disseminated during 2001 and concluded that use of false or misleading weight- loss claims in advertising is widespread. The analysis showed that nearly 40 percent of the ads collected contained at least one representation that was almost certainly false, and 15 percent of the ads made at least one representation that was very likely to be false or to lack substantiation.

The testimony noted that ephedra is often marketed for use in weight loss. Beales testified that of the 300 advertisements sampled for the Weight Loss Advertising Report, 23 or about eight percent, identified ephedra, ephedrine, or Ma Huang as an ingredient. Of these, 11 made safety claims, and seven included a specific health warning about ephedra’s potential adverse effects. Given that 60 percent of the sampled ads that made safety claims did not identify ingredients at all, these numbers almost certainly understate the prevalence of ephedra product advertising.

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 fighting the proliferation of misleading claims. A report on the results of the workshop will be released later this year.

The testimony also noted that the FTC has been meeting with members of the media and other interested parties to encourage them to screen out facially false weight-loss advertising claims. The Commission is exploring what assistance it can provide to the media on this effort.

In addition, Beales highlighted the FTC’s longstanding liaison agreement with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and noted that since December 2002, the FTC and FDA have intensified their level of cooperation. “Our enforcement actions targeting false or unsubstantiated supplement safety claims play an important supporting role to the FDA’s more comprehensive efforts to ensure the safety of supplement products,” Beales said.

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

The views expressed in the written testimony represent those of the Federal Trade Commission. 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 on “Issues Relating to Ephedra Containing Dietary Supplements” 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.

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