What price per pound?

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 20, 2002

Shed dollars overnight!

Desperation tends to overcome skepticism, which goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are willing to spend $35 billion a year on weight loss.

Consumers are inundated by ads for weight loss products: by TV, radio, print and, increasingly, by e-mail.

And now the Federal Trade Commission is out with a report that says that an astonishing percentage of these ads are bogus.

The FTC looked at 300 weight loss ads and found that 40 percent of them contained at least one flat-out falsehood and 55 percent made claims that couldn't be substantiated.

As part of the survey the agency compared ads in eight national magazines in 1992 and 2001 and found 159 percent more weight loss products being advertised, many with specific and improbable promises, e.g., "eat as much as you want and still lose weight."

Science has conclusively established that there is no other way for a healthy person to lose weight other than diet and exercise.

Yet people are desperate enough or self-deluding enough to believe they can "lose weight while you sleep."

Federal regulation should be done sparingly, but this is more than just a matter of protecting gullible consumers from unscrupulous snake oil hucksters.

Obesity is - pardon the word play - a growing national health problem. The government says slightly more than six out of 10 Americans 18 and older are overweight or obese with all the attendant risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. George Blackburn, chairman of nutrition medicine at Harvard and an FTC adviser, said of the false ads: "By promoting unrealistic expectations and false hopes, they doom current weight-loss efforts to failure and make future attempts less likely to succeed.

"Many supplements, in particular, are of unproven value or have been linked to serious health risks."

The FTC study regrettably did not name names, although the names of companies charged with false advertising - most recently Bio Lab, the maker of Quick Slim and Cellu-Fight - are in the public domain.

The FTC will hold a forum Nov. 19 to try to convince the media to voluntarily purge obviously deceptive and fraudulent ads.

That may work with the most outrageous claims, but the media is in no position to prosecute them. The government is.

The Birmingham Post-Herald

Sept. 20, 2002