DIETS ARE BIG business. Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Small Business subcommittee on regulation, says that 65 million Americans are on a diet at any given time. Last year they spent about $33 billion trying to lose weight. Rep. Wyden has held a series of hearings this year to expose some of the more fraudulent diet programs and some of the health risks involved. He has also been pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to get tougher on this industry. The FTC has for decades gone after the most outrageous false advertisers -- the people who sell devices to put in your ear that make you slim, for example, or pills that are supposed to melt fat while you sleep.
Now, according to the FTC's Richard Kelly, who testified before the Wyden subcommittee this week, the agency has moved into high gear. It has gone into court against the manufacturers of diet band-aids and exercise devices like the "Gut-Buster," which the FTC says is not only an ineffective route to a flat stomach but a dangerous machine as well. The FTC is also looking into the activities and advertising of the so-called "main-line" diet organizations and challenging claims that relate to anticipated weight loss, long-range maintenance and staff credentials.
Mr. Kelly doesn't make any deceptive promises himself. "Fraudulent schemes involving extravagant promises for physical beauty or painless weight loss are as old as time, and will, I fear, be with us as long as people will respond to quick and easy solutions," he said. Without doubt, tens of millions of strugglers would prefer to believe the quick-fix ad in which the before-and-after pictures look like Roseanne Barr and Cher, instead of buckling down to the obvious task that legitimate diet programs emphasize -- and we all know what that is. Rep. Wyden and the FTC are performing a useful service in protecting vulnerable consumers.