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FTC's fines on weight loss claims total more than all other categories combined, CRN database shows

By Hank Schultz

21-Aug-2014

The Council for Responsible Nutrition has launched a new tool for members that puts together in one place data on recent enforcement actions by the Federal Trade Commission regardling claims made in advertising. The resource can help them avoid making the same mistakes, said Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN.

The database contains information on a variety of health condition categories, including weight loss, immunity and cancer claims, among others.  Weight loss settlements led the list by a long margin, coming at $438.4 million.

Weight loss products are a category of major concern both for FTC and for the Food and Drug Administration.  FDA’s concern is with the rampant adulteration of some weight loss products masquerading as supplements that are tainted with sibutramine or other undeclared pharmaceutical ingredients.  In FTC’s case, of course, the issue concerns claims made in advertising, which range from technically non-compliant to over-the-top.

All kinds of advertisers

It’s a huge market, which some observers say could top $360 million globally by 2017 .  That kind of opportunity attracts all kinds of players, including those who fly by night  who are not the sort of companies that join trade associations.  While it’s likely that few if any CRN members will be mentioned in the settlements, the experience of other companies, even less ethical ones, can be instructive, Mister said.

“There are appropriate and legal ways to market weight loss and other dietary supplement and functional food products, and then there are advertising claims that raise red flags with the FTC. We developed this tool as a service to our member companies so they have a one-stop location to review the kinds of claims that have led to FTC investigations, consent degrees and punitive financial settlements,” Mister told NutraIngredients-USA.

Perusing the database will be helpful to member companies but won’t give them all the information they might need to avoid getting into hot water with regulators on the claims front. FTC’s primary enforcement interest is whether the claims made in the advertising of products are scientifically substantiated. The question is whether consumers are being misled to believe a product works better than it actually does.  FDA looks at whether a claim conforms to what can legally be said about a dietary supplement.

“FDA working on its side from disase claims standpoint and FTC is working on false and misleadeing communications to consumers,” Mister said.

Immunity No. 2

Immunity claims next in line in the database, with settlements of $47.2 million and impermissible cancer claims at a distant third, with claims settlements of $5 million.

“The weight loss hearing this summer refocused attention on weight loss products.  We’re now also starting to see enforcement trends in anti-aging claims and claims addressing diabetes. The data illustrates how active FTC has been in recent years and should be a warning to all companies that the agency will move aggressively to remove claims that it believes mislead consumers,” Mister said. 

In addition to cataloguing FTC enforcment actions, CRN has been active in ramping up self policing efforts on the advertsing front.  In 2006 CRN gave a multi-year grant to the  National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to help it to increase its monitoring of dietary supplement advertising. CRN offers a free searchable compilation of all dietary supplement advertising decisions issued by NAD since the initiative began.

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