Diet-Pill Makers Fined for Fraud

The Federal Trade Commission slaps four leading makers of diet pills with a $25-million fine for fraudulently claiming that their products promote weight loss.

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The Federal Trade Commission has fined four manufacturers of diet pills a total of $25 million. The companies falsely claimed that their products help people to lose weight. Now the weight loss products can continue to be sold as long as the manufacturers do not claim that the products do the things that you would buy them for.

NPR's Patty Neighmond reports.

PATTY NEIGHMOND: FTC officials say fraudulent claims were made in the marketing of Xenadrine EFX, One-a-Day Weight Smart, Cortislim and TrimSpa. FTC Chair Deborah Platt Majoras.

Ms. DEBORAH PLATT MAJORAS (Chair, Federal Trade Commission): Among the claims made in the ads presented during EFX were, quote, "in recent case studies, every participant dropped body fat at a record pace." And I quote again, "in a recent landmark university study, Xenadrine EFX exhibited such extraordinary effects on metabolism and caloric expenditure that even their researchers were shocked," end of quote.

NEIGHMOND: In fact, studies commissioned by the manufacturer actually found no evidence of such dramatic results and one study found people in the placebo group lost more weight than those taking the weight loss medication. Clearly, that was not mentioned in the ad.

Ms. MAJORAS: Xenadrine EFX advertisements used consumer testimonials extensively, including claims from purported users that they experienced rapid and substantial weight loss. The ads did not disclose, however, that the endorsers were paid as much as $20,000 for their endorsements and that they were engaged in rigorous diet and exercise programs.

NEIGHMOND: Majoras says if the claims cannot be backed up by science, then companies aren't allowed to make them. These FTC fines, she says, should act as a deterrent.

Ms. MAJORAS: I think that these cases are a wakeup call to any legitimate company, to any company even that might be a little bit on the edge, who might like to push the edge of the envelope on the science but nonetheless really wants to run a legitimate business. I think the cases are good for that.

NEIGHMOND: Some consumer advocates are skeptical that the fines will actually slow fraudulent practices. Bruce Silverglade is director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Mr. BRUCE SILVERGLADE (Director of Legal Affairs, Center for Science in the Public Interest): When a company is making tens of millions of dollars in profit, you know, a $5 million fine, while it hurts, can be written off as a practical matter as the cost of doing business. So given the enormous size of the industry, these civil penalties, while large, are not large enough to stop these practices in the long run.

NEIGHMOND: Silverglade says what's really needed is federal regulation of safety and effectiveness for supplements. Right now, supplements aren't considered drugs and so are not subject to the same standards as prescription drugs or even over-the-counter medications like aspirin and antacids. While the FTC did not evaluate the safety of these diet pills, Consumers Union official Bill Vaughan says any supplements can be dangerous.

Mr. BILL VAUGHAN (Senior Policy Analyst, Consumers Union): When you put these things in your stomach, you're taking a gamble. When you visit your doctor, if you're taking dietary supplements, you should tell him you are.

NEIGHMOND: Michael McGuffin, who's president of the American Herbal Products Association, says the industry is adequately policed and that the recent FTC settlement illustrates that. Sometimes a cop is needed, he says, to discipline companies that go too far in their advertising.

Patty Neighmond, NPR News.

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