FTC Garners Settlements with Three More
Marketers of Very-Low-Calorie-Diet Programs
FTC News Release
March 26, 1993
The Federal Trade Commission today announced proposed agreements to settle charges against three marketers of very-low-calorie diet programs. The cases involve allegations that the companies deceptively advertised the safety and long-term efficacy of their programs, among other charges. The settlements would prohibit false or unsubstantiated claims of the type alleged by the FTC, and would require certain disclosures in conjunction with safety and weight-loss maintenance claims, in the future.
In separate complaints detailing the charges, the FTC named Health Management Resources of Boston, MA; United Weight Control Corporation of New York City; and Abbott Laboratories of Abbott Park, IL. Health Management Resources has referred to its program as the HMR Fasting Program; United Weight Control's programs are called The UWCC Permanence Program and the Risk Reduction Program; and Abbott Laboratories' program is called New Directions. The companies have advertised their programs in general circulation periodicals, through promotional materials disseminated to consumers, and in orientation sessions for prospective customers.
Very-low-calorie diet programs, or VLCDs, are rapid weight-loss, modified-fasting diets of 800 or fewer calories per day. Dieters on these programs customarily are supervised by medical professionals. The cases announced today are three more in a series of FTC cases involving allegations of deceptive advertising claims for VLCDs, arising from the FTC's ongoing, industry-wide investigation of claims made by medically-supervised and commercial center-based low-calorie and very-low-calorie diet programs.
Specifically, the FTC alleged in its complaints that the firms represented their programs as either unqualifiedly free of health risks or safe. In light of these representations, the FTC charged, it was misleading to consumers for the companies to fail to disclose that physician monitoring is required to minimize the potential for health risks associated with VLCDs. (The FTC has not alleged that the programs are unsafe. There is, however, some empirical evidence that patients on VLCDs may be at increased risk of developing gallstones.)
The FTC also challenged weight-loss maintenance representations allegedly made by the firms, including representations that their programs are successful, long-term treatments for obesity. The FTC charged that the companies did not have substantiation to support these representations. Moreover, the FTC alleged, representations by United Weight Control that scientific evidence has proven that the programs are successful over the long term in treating obesity were false and misleading.
In its complaint against Health Management Resources, the FTC further alleged that the company did not have evidence to support representations that its programs, including the practice of advising patients to remain on the programs for extensive periods of time, are widely accepted by the medical profession and preferred by most medical experts. Further, the FTC charged, various alleged representations regarding the low success rate of other diet programs also were not substantiated by the company.
Finally, the FTC challenged as unsubstantiated United Weight Control's representation that its programs are unique or superior to others in promoting weight loss and maintenance.
The proposed consent agreements to settle these charges, announced today for a public comment period, contain various prohibitions against future misrepresentations about the likelihood of regaining lost weight, and against any unsubstantiated claims about the success of patients on any diet program in achieving or maintaining weight loss. To ensure compliance, the settlements further would specify the level of evidence required to support certain representations. Specifically:
- a representation that a certain weight loss is typical must be based on a representative sample of all patients who entered the program, if the representation relates to such persons (or, if the representation refers only to those who entered the program and completed a certain portion, then the claim must be based on a representative sample of that group);
- a representation that weight loss is long term must be based on patients followed for at least two years after completing the program, including any maintenance phase; and
- a representation that weight loss is permanent must be based on the experience of patients followed for a period of time either recognized by obesity experts or demonstrated by reliable survey evidence as being of sufficient duration to permit such a prediction.
Further, representations that patients have successfully maintained weight loss would have to include disclosures about the average percentage of weight loss maintained by those patients and how long they maintained it. If the patient population referred to is not representive of the general patient population, then respondents would have to disclose the portion of the total patient population that those patients represent. In addition, in conjunction with any weight-loss maintenance success claim, the companies would have to include the statement, "For many dieters, weight loss is temporary."
The proposed consent agreements also would prohibit the firms from misrepresenting the health risks of VLCD programs, and would require that any claim about safety be accompanied by a clear and prominent disclosure that physician monitoring is required to minimize the potential for health risks.
Health Management Resources also agreed to provisions in its settlement agreement requiring the company to have scientific study results to back up future representations about the efficacy of other diet programs or comparing the efficacy of its program to other diet programs, and to have competent and reliable evidence to support any claim about the acceptance of its program by the medical community. United Weight Control agreed that, in the future, it will not misrepresent the existence, validity or results of any test or study, and it will avoid making various comparisons between its diet programs and others if they are not substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.
The Commission votes to accept the complaints and proposed consent agreements for public comment were 5-0, although Commissioner Mary L. Azcuenaga dissented in part with respect to United Weight Control, and Commissioner Deborah K. Owen dissented in part with respect to Health Management, United Weight Control and Abbott Laboratories.
In her separate statement in the United Weight Control matter, Commissioner Azcuenaga stated that she dissents as to the inclusion in the proposed complaint of the paragraph that pertains to United Weight Control's claim that its Risk Reduction Program is the "only" weight control program developed to "reduce the high incidence of heart attacks and other serious health problems among abdominally obese men." According to Azcuenaga, a relatively low level of substantiation should be sufficient for this uniqueness claim, given Commission precedent. In addition, Commissioner Acuenaga noted that if other competitors have the same or similar programs dealing with the reduction of heart attack risks, they could easily rebut United Weight Control's uniqueness claims by advertising the health-risk reduction aspect of their programs and that such a response might benefit consumers.
Given the potential usefulness of this information to consumers, absent a showing of consumer injury and with some evidence that the claim may be true, Azcuenaga concluded that, "we would serve consumers better by leaving the claim unchallenged."
In her separate statement in the Health Management Resources and United Weight Control matters, Commissioner Deborah K. Owen disagreed with certain aspects of the proposed remedies in both cases. Owen concluded that the disclosures for weight-loss maintenance claims required by both proposed orders are likely to be too complex to be effective in aiding consumers if made during short radio or TV ads. (Owen also dissented in Abbott with respect to the same disclosure provisions in short radio and TV ads.) Owen concluded that the evidence was too weak to support challenging United Weight Control's comparative claims, and that there was insufficient information on actual consumer reaction to the claims. She noted that the firm's comparative claims were unlike the stronger, more specific comparative claims seen in some previous cases, and that United Weight Control had some evidence to substantiate the claim about its program addressing cardiac health risks among men. Finally, noting that previous orders with very-low-calorie diet marketers had only a three-year requirement, Owen concluded that she saw no justification for requiring United Weight to maintain relevant records for five years.
The FTC also has developed two free brochures for consumers, titled "Diet Programs" and "The Facts About Weight Loss Products and Programs," which list some sensible weight-loss and maintenance tips.
- (Abbott Laboratories) FTC File No. 912-3048. FTC Docket No. C-3442.
- (Health Management Resources) FTC File No. 912-3303. FTC Docket No. C-3455.
- (United Weight Control) FTC File No. 902-3253. FTC Docket No. C-3448.
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