Junkfood Science: Program cited by the FTC for fraud is now government funded

January 28, 2007

Program cited by the FTC for fraud is now government funded

Three weeks ago, we read of the Federal Trade Commission’s crackdown on fraudulent weight loss products, fining them $25 million. The FTC has filed more than 80 cases in the past ten years against such deceptive weight loss advertising — as many actions as in the prior seven decades combined. How effective have they been?

In a statement to the FTC on October 8, 2002, J. Howard Beales, III, Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection, said: “Even with an increase in enforcement actions by the FTC and other agencies in the past decade, deceptive claims continue to rise.” As Dr. David Klurfeld noted in a November issue of Nutrition News Focus, diet and weight loss makes companies millions of dollars and an FTC letter or a fine still leaves them with substantial profit and little incentive for discontinuing their products.

Throughout the years, five of the country’s largest commercial diet companies have been charged with deceptive advertising for making unsubstantiated weight-loss and weight-loss maintenance claims; for using consumer testimonials without substantiation that the testimonials represented the typical experience of dieters on the programs; and some also for deceptive pricing, weight-loss rate or safety-related claims. Those companies included Weight Watchers International, Inc.; Jenny Craig, Inc.; Diet Center, Inc.; Physicians Weight Loss Center of America; and Nutri/System Inc.

In the Final Decision issued by the FTC (Docket No. 9261) on Christmas Eve 1997, Weight Watchers International, Inc. was ordered to “cease and desist from making any representation, directly or by implication, about the success of participants on any weight loss program in achieving or maintaining weight loss or weight control unless, at the time of making any such representation, respondent possesses...reliable scientific evidence...that:

(1) any weight loss achieved or maintained through the weight loss program is typical or representative of all or any subset of participants of respondent's program..

(2) any weight loss is maintained long-term, said evidence shall, at a minimum, be based upon the experience of participants who were followed for a period of at least two years ...

(3) any weight loss is maintained permanently...”

Since then, no reliable scientific evidence has been produced in accordance with the FTC’s directives. The only trial published was in 2003 in the Journal of the American Medical Association and showed a mere 6 pounds average weight loss after two years but all dieters were gradually regaining their weight after the first year. Nor were results reported on all the participants as attrition rates were so high that one-third had dropped out, but their weight losses were carried forward in the data as having been maintained.

Since the FTC ruling, Weight Watchers International, Inc. became a founding Board member of the National Business Group on Health and its Institute on the Costs and Health Effects of Obesity; a corporate sponsor of the American Obesity Association; a major sponsor of the national launch of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2000; a founding sponsor of the Surgeon General’s Shape Up America!; and a partner in the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management. On January 26, 2007, Weight Watchers International had a $5.16 billion market capitalization (stock value).

Today, the news reports that taxpayers will now fund Weight Watchers. It will be provided free to Medicaid recipients in West Virginia and similar programs are being considered for roll out in California, Colorado Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. It is unknown how much profit this will mean for Weight Watchers, but in West Virginia, Medicaid is the single largest item in the state budget at more than $2.1 billion and in 2002 spent about $140 million on obesity-related treatments.

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