THE WEIGHT LOSS WORKSHOP
NOVEMBER 19, 2002
Welcome to the FTC's workshop on Deception in Weight Loss Advertising, and thank you for joining us today. I would especially like to thank our distinguished panelists for sharing their insights and expertise in this very important area.
We have convened this workshop to explore the impact deceptive weight-loss ads have on the public health and to develop new approaches for combating weight-loss fraud.
In the past 10 years, despite unprecedented levels of law enforcement and broad consumer education programs, deceptive and misleading weight loss advertising has become rampant. Consumers are bombarded with advertisements for products promising quick-fixes and miraculous results, with no effort required on their part. These ads run everywhere, in all media, including television, newspapers, and magazines. Unfortunately, they can be found in some of the most reputable publications and media outlets. Equally disturbing is that this trend of false advertising is on the rise.
Two months ago, with the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management, we released a report that analyzed 300 weight-loss ads that ran in 2001. We found that nearly 40% of the ads contained at least one claim that was obviously false. And when we compared the magazine ads from 1992 with those from 2001, we found that not only were there many more weight loss ads in 2001 than 1992, we also found that they were more likely to contain false claims. Claims like: "Eat all you want and lose weight," "Lose weight while you sleep," and "Never, ever have to diet again."
And these types of claims are not unique to the print media. They can be found in all forms of media, including television. We are going to show a tape of a few ads that demonstrate the types of claims I'm referring to. The first ad on the tape is a clip from an infomercial for the Enforma weight loss system. The Commission sued Enforma for the weight loss claims in this ad, and ultimately settled with the company for $10 million. Despite entering this settlement, Enforma continued to make weight loss claims in violation of the consent order. Upon the Commission's request, the district court held Enforma in contempt of court, and ordered the company to recall several of its products.
I also would like to note that on September 18, 2002, on page A3, the Washington Post carried a story about the release of the FTC's report on weight loss advertising showing an increase in the number of deceptive weight loss ads. In that same paper, however, on page A13, the Washington Post ran a quarter page weight loss ad that obviously was false.
It is especially troubling that this increase in deceptive weight loss ads coincides with an equally unprecedented epidemic of overweight and obesity among adults and children. Of course, false ads don't cause obesity, but misleading advertising messages promoting nonexistent "quick-fixes" do nothing to address this health crisis. All they do is encourage consumers to put their faith - and their hard-earned dollars - in remedies that cannot work.
It is clear to us then that something more needs to be done to address this problem. We know that any successful fight against weight loss fraud will require efforts on four fronts: law enforcement, consumer education, industry self-regulation, and effective media screening. Certainly, vigorous law enforcement will continue. The FTC has a strong record in this area. We've brought 97 cases since 1990, with more than $50 million in consumer redress and other financial remedies. But unfortunately - with numerous new products emerging each year, manufacturers vying for a slice of this multi-billion dollar industry, and some companies running phony weight loss promotions from outside the U.S., using aliases, middlemen, and offshore bank accounts - law enforcement alone is not enough.
Consumer education is another aspect of our strategy that will continue in full force. We will continue to work with government agencies, public health groups, and others to spread the word that when it comes to weight loss, there is no magic bullet.
The last two components of the strategy - the need for industry self-regulation and effective media screening - involve today's workshop, panelists, and perhaps many of you. No effective approach to combating weight loss fraud can be complete without the attention of the industry and the media to this growing problem. We have convened three panels today. These panels will consider the current state of the science regarding weight loss, and explore ways that members of the weight loss industry and the media can contribute to curtailing this fraud.
Our first panel is comprised of distinguished doctors and scientists, all of whom have expertise in relevant fields such as obesity, weight management, human nutrition, physiology, and the mechanics of weight loss. This panel will fill our morning session, and will focus on such issues as the mechanics of weight loss and the credibility of certain advertising claims. A primary goal of this panel is to discuss whether certain claims made routinely in current weight loss ads promise results that, based on the current state of the science, are simply not scientifically feasible.
On our second panel will be members of the weight loss industry, including representatives of the dietary supplement industry, electronic retailers, National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Partnership for Healthy Weight Management, and companies selling fitness and weight loss products and services. This panel will explore the problems that fraudulent marketers pose for the industry as a whole, and consider the industry's role in, and models of, self-regulation.
Our third and final panel will focus on the media's role, and will consist of academics and representatives from media organizations and outlets. This panel will examine current clearance practices and guidelines, and discuss new approaches to effective media screening.
Our goal here is not to create a television-network style clearance process for weight loss ads. Although a very good process, we know that not every media can support such detailed screening of ads. Our goal is much more modest. We are talking about screening out the most egregious examples - weight loss earrings or shoe insoles, pills that tell consumers they can eat whatever they want and still lose weight, and products that make physically implausible promises like "lose 30 pounds in 30 days."
We look forward to a discussion about what can be done to stem the tide of these fraudulent weight loss product ads. Would more guidance be helpful? What about a list of the kinds of outrageous weight loss claims that should be, as we call it, "the tip-off to the rip-off"? Would it be helpful if the FTC distributed such a list to industry members and to the media?
Again, I would like to welcome you all here and thank our panelists for their contributions to what we expect will be a productive and enlightening day. In addition, I would like to thank FTC Commissioner Sheila Anthony, who will address the group at the start of this afternoon's sessions, and who has helped educate me on this important issue. I also would like to take this opportunity to inform you that we will continue to accept written comments on these issues following the workshop, and encourage anyone who still is interested in submitting a public comment to do so.