FTC cites five diet programs Agency says ads are deceptive

October 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Trade Commission charged five of the nation's largest commercial diet programs yesterday with engaging in deceptive advertising, saying they have made unsubstantiated weight-loss claims and used consumer testimonials without evidence they represent typical experiences of dieters in their programs.

As a result of the cases, "we believe that some six million consumers will get far more realistic information about what they'll get for the more than $2 billion they spend each year on memberships in weight loss programs," said Christian S. White, acting director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection.

"The bottom line is that losing weight is hard work -- and keeping it off is harder still. . . . Consumers who buy into these programs need to understand that, all too often, promises of long-term weight loss raise false hopes of an easy fix for a difficult problem."

Such programs have enjoyed enormous success in recent years in a weight-conscious society that places a high value on being slender and as more Americans -- increasingly concerned with health and fitness -- have sought help in slimming down.

In some cases, the FTC complaint also addressed issues of deceptive pricing, comparative superiority, weight-loss rate or safety-related claims.

Two programs, Weight Watchers International, and Jenny Craig Inc. and Jenny Craig International, said they will fight the charges.

The remaining three -- Diet Center, Inc., Physicians Weight Loss Centers of America, Inc., and Nutri/System Inc. -- have agreed to settle the complaints under consent agreements, the FTC said.

Charles Berger, chairman of Weight Watchers, said the FTC had unfairly singled out his organization. "We are completely innocent," Mr. Berger said. "Weight Watchers has earned the trust and confidence of millions of people by helping them lose weight in a safe, sensible way."

Ronald E. Gerevas, president and chief operating officer at Jenny Craig, called the FTC's action "misguided and discriminatory." He said it would result "in granting unfair advantage to some companies in our industry over others."

Both cases will be scheduled for hearings before an administrative law judge, the FTC said. If the charges are upheld, the agency said it would ensure that Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers "do not mislead consumers about what to expect from the programs in the future." The FTC said it might also seek court orders requiring the companies to pay restitution, refunds or some other redress to their customers.

All five companies market low-calorie diet programs, including food products or recommended diets and weight maintenance services, on a nationwide scale through company-owned and franchised centers.

Yesterday's cases are founded on various advertising statements made by the companies, including testimonials from consumers describing the weight loss they achieved under the programs. The agency charged that none of the five companies could substantiate these ads.

For example, the FTC charged that Jenny Craig and Physicians Weight Loss Centers made false or unsubstantiated representations that their clients typically reached their weight loss goals within certain, predictable time frames.

The FTC also alleged that Weight Watchers made false weight loss rate representations for its "Quick Success" program.

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