Watch Out! False Weight Loss Claims Abound

Nearly half of weight-loss ads contain misleading information

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 17, 2003
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 17, 2002 -- Being overweight increases your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and even some cancers. And now you can add another risk to that list: being taken in by fraudulent weight-loss advertising.

False claims in weight-loss product advertisements have increased over the past 10 years despite increased law enforcement attempts to curb them, according to a new report released today by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management.

Of 300 advertisements gleaned from television, radio, magazines, newspapers, email spam, and other sources, new research shows 40% of the ads contained at least one claim that "was almost certainly false," said FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris at a press conference today announcing the findings. Another 55% of the advertisements contained statements that the researchers judged likely to be false or that lacked adequate substantiation.

The products themselves are not the target of the FTC's ire, as many may have legitimate uses, says J. Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "But the claims being made for them are just beyond the pale," he says.

And the survey shows that the situation is getting worse. The researchers compared magazine advertisements with similar advertisements that appeared in the same magazines in 1992, and found that the magazines now have twice as many weight-loss ads, says Muris. And the newer advertisements were much more likely to claim such unrealistic outcomes as permanent weight loss without diet or exercise. They also were more likely to contain misleading promises, according to the report.

"Consumers are being ripped off by products that don't perform as promised," says Muris. "What this report shows is that in spite of a dramatic increase in law enforcement in the 1990s, the situation has gotten demonstrably worse in the amount of deceptive and fraudulent ads that are out there."

Since 1990, the FTC has filed 93 cases against false and misleading weight-loss claims.

The situation calls for action beyond law enforcement, Murin says, and that has prompted the FTC to sponsor a public meeting on November 19 to explore additional options. One approach is to appeal to the media sources that carry these advertisements, asking them to adopt a self-regulating approach that will freeze some of the worst offenders out of advertising circles.

"Screen these unscrupulous advertisements. Don't take the money. Don't contribute to fraud and misinformation," pleaded George L. Blackburn, chair of the department of nutritional medicine at Harvard Medical Center at today's conference.

Lynn McAfee of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination agrees. "The most important reason to stop these scams is that as long as people buy these products and media outlets lend them credibility, the weight-loss product industry has little incentive to improve. They endanger the public and take our hard-earned money."

The FTC also hopes to educate consumers, to help them recognize unfounded claims. "It is important for consumers to understand that there are no quick fixes for obesity," says Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona. "It requires a lifelong commitment to healthful eating and moderate physical activity. Walking just 30 minutes a day, five days a week can reduce weight, and make you feel better."