WASHINGTON -- Weight-loss advertising is rife with false or misleading claims that prey on millions of overweight people seeking help to shed pounds, the Federal Trade Commission reported Tuesday.
The FTC found that 55 percent of weight-loss ads make claims that lack proof or very likely are false.
"There are no fast and easy fixes," Surgeon General Richard Carmona wrote in a preface to the study. "The public must adopt a healthy skepticism about advertising that promises miracles and scientific breakthroughs."
Carmona said companies should use real weight-loss results in their promotions and publishers and broadcasters should screen ads they run to ensure they "are based on science and not on wishful thinking."
About 61 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, the report said, and more than two-thirds of all Americans are trying to lose or keep off weight. Consumers spent about $35 billion in 2000 on weight-loss products ranging from books and videos to drugs and diet shakes, the report said.
The FTC conducted the study with the Partnership for Healthy Weight Management, a coalition that includes scientists, government agencies and weight-loss companies.
Researchers examined 300 weight-loss advertisements that ran mostly during the first half of 2001. The ads were taken from television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, e-mail and direct mail.
The FTC also said its efforts against deceptive marketing for weight-loss products have increased.
The new report found that many of the 2001 ads defied scientific facts and were obviously false. Some ads promised substantial and rapid weight-loss without surgery, diet or exercise, while others claimed users of a product could eat as much as they wanted and still lose weight.
"By promoting unrealistic expectations and false hopes, they doom current weight-loss efforts to failure and make future attempts less likely to succeed," said Dr. George Blackburn, a professor of nutrition at Harvard Medical School-Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Blackburn said some weight-loss supplements lack safety warnings and can be dangerous.
Ephedra, a popular herb commonly used for weight loss and bodybuilding, has long been controversial. The FDA has reports of 100 deaths among ephedra users.
The Justice Department said last month that it is conducting a criminal investigation into whether Metabolife International, the nation's leading seller of the supplement, lied about the safety of ephedra.
One product made from the ground-up shells of shrimps, crabs and lobsters was promoted with statements like "Have you ever seen an overweight fish? Or an oyster with a few pounds too many?"
"To lose weight and not regain it, ongoing changes in thinking, eating and exercise are essential," Blackburn said. He said that when people know more about the realities of weight-loss, "fewer will be inclined to waste their money, time and effort on dangerous fads."
On the Net:
Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov
Partnership for Healthy Weight Management: http://www.consumer.gov/weightloss/