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Federal Trade Commission Pushes Back Against Counterfeit Science

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The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS was created because we believe scientific evidence matters—for public policy decisions, and for citizens making decisions every day about their health and well-being. At least as far as truth in advertising goes, it turns out we have a strong ally in the federal government: the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Woman-African-American-shopping-for-supplements
Photo: ods.od.nih.gov

The recent legal settlement concerning deceptive advertising of weight-loss products caught my attention. It wasn’t because of the conventional wisdom that something that sounds too good to be true probably isn’t. It was because of the settlement’s reference to false claims about clinical trials and scientific evidence.

Four companies (Sensa Inc, L’Occitane, HCG Diet Direct, and LeanSpa) settled with the FTC, agreeing to pay more than $34 million in penalties for deceptive advertising of weight-loss or slimming products. It turns out, you will be shocked to learn, that there is no scientific evidence that sprinkling something or adding hormone drops to your food, applying skin cream, or eating acai berries and taking colon-cleanse supplements will result in weight loss. But that didn’t stop these companies from advertising falsely claiming clinically proven results. In effect, they used counterfeit science (and other deceptive methods) to market their dubious products.

And the FTC pushed back. While the agency cannot stop a company from selling its products, they can levy sanctions for deceiving consumers. It turns out the FTC has made it a particular priority to focus on false claims by the $25 billion per year dietary supplements industry along with other health and fitness-related products. The list of settlements in the past few years is revealing. Here are just a few of the cases. In all of these, the companies involved claimed, but did not have, actual scientific evidence about purported health benefits from their products:

  • Sensa and Three Other Marketers of Fad Weight-Loss Products Settle FTC Charges in Crackdown on Deceptive Advertising
  • Companies Pitching Genetically Customized Nutritional Supplements Will Drop Misleading Disease Claims
  • FTC Sends Refunds to Consumers Who Purchased Disney- or Marvel Hero-themed Children’s Vitamins
  • FTC Commissioners Uphold Trial Judge Decision that POM Wonderful, LLC; Stewart and Lynda Resnick; Others Deceptively Advertised Pomegranate Products by Making Unsupported Health Claims
  • Skechers Will Pay $40 Million to Settle FTC Charges That It Deceived Consumers with Ads for “Toning Shoes”
  • Lane Labs Found in Contempt of Court Order Barring Deceptive Health Claims

We should be wary not only that products may not deliver the results advertised, but for some products real harm may result. Only in cases where such harm can clearly be related to dietary supplements can their distribution be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

So, thank you FTC, for pushing back against misinformation and counterfeit science. We need real, independent scientific evidence to make decisions about our health and nutrition. And when something says “clinically proven,” we should have confidence the phrase means what it says.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Science and Democracy Tags: , , , ,

About the author: Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the UCS Center for Science and Democracy. He leads UCS's efforts to advance the essential role that science, evidence-based decision making, and constructive debate play in American policy making. See Andrew's full bio.

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