FTC Seeks $34 Million Redress from Four Weight-Loss Marketers

January 7, 2014

The agency has also launched a new website to help media outlets identify deceptive weight-loss ads.

Four weight-loss product marketers have settled with the FTC over what the agency says were deceptive advertising claims, the agency announced today. In total, the companies will pay $34 million in consumer redress. The FTC says that the companies lacked competent and reliable scientific evidence to support their weight-loss claims. “The science just isn’t there,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Like most recent FTC orders over false advertising claims, FTC’s consent orders in these cases bar the companies from making any future weight-loss claims unless the claims are supported by “two adequate, well-controlled” human clinical studies.

The FTC has also turned its focus on the media outlets-print, television, radio, etc.-where these ads have run and says it is seeking to educate media about how to “screen out facially deceptive ads.” Noting that consumers are more likely to trust an ad that they see in their favorite magazine or on a national television station, for instance, the agency has sent letters to 75 broadcasters encouraging them to voluntarily screen ads. It has launched a website, www.business.ftc.gov/gutcheck, as a reference guide for media with tips on how to identify false weight loss claims, noting that “no legitimate media outlet wants to be associated with fraud.” (The agency says that many of the ads in the recent weight-loss settlements ran in nationally known media outlets.) For instance, the agency points out red flags such as claims that a product “causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise” or that a product “blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight.”

“For the most part, the examples we’re talking about apply to dietary supplements, including herbal remedies, over-the-counter drugs, as well as patches, creams, wraps, and similar products worn on the body or rubbed into the skin. They don’t apply to prescription drugs, meal replacement products, low-calorie foods, surgery, hypnosis, special diets, or exercise equipment,” the website states.

Under The Federal Trade Commission Act, the FTC does have the ability to take action against media outlets that air false claims. However, “It’s not something that the commission has done or plans to do; we’re really looking for voluntary action, as we have in the past,” said Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC, during a press conference.

Of the four recent companies to reach a settlement with the FTC, the marketers of weight-loss product Sensa will pay the biggest share of the redress, to the tune of $26.5 million. FTC says this is the second-largest deceptive advertising settlement in FTC history. The company’s product is a flavored powder that users can sprinkle on their food. According to the company, the product supports metabolism and is said to enhance the taste and smell of food to make users feel fuller faster, causing weight loss without requiring dieting. “Using Sensa Advanced really is as simple as Sprinkle, Eat, and Lose,” the product’s website states. 

FTC says that the product claims, as well as claims made in endorsements, including those by Sensa Products part-owner Dr. Alan Hirsch, were based on flawed and fabricated data, and that the company failed to disclose that some consumer endorsements were paid.

The three other marketers targeted by FTC are beauty brand L’Occitane, homeopathic drops brand HCG Diet Direct, and dietary supplements company LeanSpa LLC.

FTC’s Rich said L’Occitane’s claims that its Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight skin creams could fight cellulite and trim inches off the body were not based on placebo-controlled or blinded studies and that the study results cited were exaggerated. L’Occitane will pay $450,000 in consumer redress.

The FTC imposed a $3.2 million judgment on HCG Diet Direct for its homeopathic drops containing hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) that FTC says “has been falsely promoted for decades as a weight-loss supplement.” FTC first sent warning letters to HCG Diet Direct in November 2011.

Finally, LeanSpa, a company that FTC says used fake news websites to advertise its acai berry and “colon cleanse” weight-loss products, has reached a settlement equaling approximately $7 million.

Related Content:

Sports & Energy | Regulatory