FTC Testifies Before Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Agency Efforts to Combat Fraudulent and Deceptive Claims for Weight-Loss Products

The Federal Trade Commission testified before Congress about its ongoing efforts to combat fraudulent and deceptive claims for weight-loss products through law enforcement, media outreach, and consumer education.

Testifying on behalf of the FTC before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance, Mary Engle, Associate Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission, said that amid an ongoing obesity epidemic – in which nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults are obese or overweight – the FTC’s most recent fraud study shows that more consumers were victims of fraudulent weight-loss claims than of any other specific fraud type covered by the survey.

The testimony also noted that despite consumer spending of $2.4 billion on weight-loss products and services last year, there is very little evidence that pills or supplements alone will cause sustained, meaningful weight loss – without changes to diet and lifestyle. According to the testimony, consumers are especially susceptible to weight-loss fraud, there is an enormous amount of money to be made in the diet industry, and fraudsters will continue to gravitate toward the money.

“The endless flood of unfounded claims being made in the weight-loss industry vividly illustrates the challenges we, and consumers, are up against,” the testimony stated.

The FTC’s program to combat fraud in the weight-loss industry includes:

Law enforcement: In the past 10 years, the FTC has brought 82 weight-loss-related law enforcement actions, and since 2010, it has collected nearly $107 million for consumer restitution. Early this year, the agency announced Operation Failed Resolution, targeting new weight-loss fads that include food additives, human hormones, skin creams and acai berries.

The Commission has also noted several disturbing developments in weight-loss advertising:

  • reliance on proprietary studies using erroneous or fabricated data.
  • marketers capitalizing on weight-loss fads propelled to popularity by trusted spokespeople such as one recent FTC case involving marketers of the Pure Green Coffee dietary supplement. Within weeks of an April 2012 Dr. Oz Show touting green coffee bean extract, these marketers were making overblown claims about the supplement online, such as, “lose 20 pounds in four weeks” and “lose 20 pounds and two to four inches of belly fat in two to three months.”

Media Outreach: To combat the promotion of fraudulent weight-loss products in respected media outlets, the FTC recently issued a “Gut Check” reference guide that advises media outlets on seven claims in weight-loss ads that experts say simply cannot be true and that should cause media outlets to think twice about running the ads.

Consumer Education: Recent FTC brochures, articles, and blog posts geared toward consumers hammer home the message that the only thing they will lose is money if they fall for ads promising quick weight loss without diet or exercise. The FTC also has created teaser websites designed to reach people who are surfing online for weight-loss products.

Today, the agency is also launching a new consumer video and game – the FTC Weight Loss Challenge. The Challenge is an interactive game designed to help consumers think critically about weight-loss products and claims. Available in English and Spanish, the game separates fact from fiction in ads for products touting fast weight loss without the need for diet and exercise.

The Commission vote approving the testimony and its inclusion in the formal record was 5-0.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

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