A Bitter Pill to Swallow

FTC Fines Marketers of Popular Weight-Loss Remedies for False Ad Claims

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007; Page D01

The ads for CortiStress said it could reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer's disease. Xenadrine EFX's "thermogenic technology" was supposed to give your metabolism a lift. And TrimSpa said it contained a plant "used by African bushmen for centuries" that could help you lose weight so you could "become all you ever envied."

Those claims are not credible, the Federal Trade Commission concluded, yesterday announcing it will collect about $25 million from the marketers of those popular weight-control pills to settle allegations that they misled consumers.

None of the products was deemed dangerous to a person's health, and the pills will be allowed to remain on store shelves, FTC officials said. The promoters, however, must change their advertising.

The pharmaceutical company Bayer, which was among the FTC's targets, agreed to pay a $3.2 million civil penalty to settle charges that it violated a previous FTC order that required all health claims for its One-a-Day vitamins be "supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence." In national ads, Bayer claimed its One-a-Day WeightSmart contained epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a green-tea extract that can help prevent weight gain in women older than 30 who "can gain 10 pounds a decade, due in part to a slowing metabolism."

Those claims were not "substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence," the agency said.

The settlement with Bayer "is a wake-up call to any company that wants to push the envelope," FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said. "Every claim they make they have to have the science to back it up."

Bayer spokeswoman Tricia McKernan said the company never marketed WeightSmart as a weight-loss product and cited three studies supporting the company's claims that EGCG can "enhance metabolism." She said, however, that the company would comply with the agency's orders.

The settlements yesterday were the latest in the FTC's periodic crackdowns on weight-control claims. Since 1990, it has prosecuted more than 100 cases against marketers of flab-busting products, including the promoters of a "tummy-flattening gel" who agreed to pay $3 million last May.

With more than 70 million Americans trying to lose weight and spending $33 billion a year on weight-control products, the market remains lucrative for legitimate operators and hucksters alike. The more than 25,000 dietary supplements on the market are lightly regulated. Their manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that a supplement is safe before it is sold, but they do not need to register their products or get approval. The Food and Drug Administration can take action against unsafe products after the products reach the market. The FTC regulates dietary supplement advertising.

FTC officials said part of the reason consumers fall for phony weight-loss claims is because they see advertisements in major publications like TV Guide, Men's Fitness and People magazine.

"The FTC is asking the media not to run these ads," Majoras said.

Of the settlements the FTC plans to collect, Robert Chinery Jr. and his company, RTC Research and Development, will pay $8 million to $12.8 million for saying Xenadrine EFX was clinically proven to cause rapid and substantial weight loss. Chinery commissioned several studies, but none showed Xenadrine EFX produced substantial weight loss, the FTC said. In fact, one 10-week study showed subjects taking Xenadrine EFX lost fewer pounds than those taking a placebo, the FTC said.

The FTC expects to recover cash and assets worth at least $12 million from Stephen F. Cheng and his company, Window Rock Enterprises, and Gregory Cynaumon and his company, Infinity Advertising, which promoted CortiSlim and CortiStress.

Alexander Goen and several companies associated with him will pay $1.5 million for the marketing of TrimSpa. In addition to TV commercials showing celebrity endorser Anna Nicole Smith romping on a beach, ads for TrimSpa said an ingredient, hoodia gordonii, aided weight loss and described it as a plant used by African bushmen to suppress hunger on long hunting trips. TrimSpa did not admit liability.

Most of the money the FTC is to collect will go toward consumer redress, with the exception of Bayer's penalty, which goes to the U.S. Treasury.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company