Weight-loss companies charged with false advertising
(CNN) — That “miracle” weight-loss product you’ve seen on TV may not live up to the hype.
The Federal Trade Commission has charged four companies with deceptive advertising related to their weight loss products. “Operation Failed Resolution,” as the FTC calls it, is an effort by the federal agency to crack down on companies’ misleading claims about products that allegedly help consumers slim down.
“Resolutions to lose weight are easy to make but hard to keep,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “And the chances of being successful just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing cream on your thighs or using a supplement are slim to none. The science just isn’t there.”
Only three weight-loss drugs are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for long-term use by certain adults: Belviq, Qsymia and Orlistat (sold over-the-counter as Alli).
The FTC has reached a settlement with Sensa, Inc. and a partial settlement with LeanSpa, LLC., according to an FTC press release. The release also announced the charges filed against L’Occitane and HCG Diet Direct.
Users sprinkle Sensa on their food to allegedly reduce hunger. It contains maltodextrin, tricalcium phosphate and silica, as well as natural and artificial flavors.
Sensa’s advertising claimed the product is clinically proven to help people lose an average of 30 pounds in six months without dieting or exercise.
“Simply sprinkle Sensa on, eat all the foods you love and watch the pounds come off,” one commercial promised. “It’s that easy.”
A one-month supply of Sensa is $59.00 (plus shipping and handling). Profit from the sales of Sensa in the United States between 2008 and 2012 totaled nearly $364 million, according to court documents.
The FTC complaint named Sensa Products LLC, Sensa Inc., Sensa CEO Adam Goldberg and Sensa creator Dr. Alan Hirsch. All were charged with making unsubstantiated claims.
“SENSA® made a business decision to settle with the FTC so it could focus on the core of its business: its customers,” the company said in response on its website. “The settlement includes no admission of wrongful conduct by the company… The company has agreed to make changes to its advertising claims but otherwise will continue business as usual.”
The FTC shut down LeanSpa leader Boris Mizhen’s weight-loss companies in December 2011, claiming they were using fake news websites to promote acai berry and colon cleansing products. The FTC said consumers were being ripped off by paying up to $79.99 in shipping and handling charges for a “free trial.”
In a statement, LeanSpa said that it “regrets that it was forced by heavy-handed government tactics and financial circumstances, including an unwarranted freeze of the personal assets of LeanSpa principal Boris Mizhen and his wife (who wasn’t even involved in the business and has been accused of no wrongdoing), to enter into this settlement. LeanSpa never should have been named in this lawsuit and has been ruined by it.
“LeanSpa was an excellent company with first rank scientific advisors and an excellent, clinically tested weight loss product. It did not mislead consumers in its product claims or billing practices, and was itself a victim of deceptive and fraudulent conduct by its marketing partners. The settlement is a pragmatic compromise which admits no wrongdoing by LeanSpa and Mr. Mizhen and spares them expensive, protracted litigation. Could they have had their day in court, they are confident they and their actions would have been wholly vindicated.”
The company’s website, LeanSpa.com, appeared to be down Wednesday.
L’Occitane sells beauty products and fragrances that are “inspired by the Mediterranean lifestyle,” according to the company’s website.
L’Occitane launched an advertising campaign in 2012 that claimed its Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight skin creams could help consumers slim down. Commercials said Almond Beautiful Shape could “trim 1.3 inches in just 4 weeks” while Almond Shaping Delight would “visibly refine and reshape the silhouette.”
Seven ounces of the products sold for $48 and $44, respectively.
“L’Occitane takes enormous care in developing our entire line of products and we want our customers to make well-informed decisions,” the company said in a statement. “When the FTC raised concerns in April 2012 regarding the way research findings for Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight were communicated, we immediately took steps to review our advertising and marketing processes, and cooperated fully with the FTC. As a result of the FTC inquiry, L’Occitane has implemented a set of even more rigorous policies and procedures that will guide future clinical testing and ensure that our marketing and advertising comply with FTC regulations and guidelines.”
HCG Diet Direct sells a liquid form of the hormone chorionic gonadotropin, which is produced by the human placenta and has long been said to promote weight loss. HGC products are sold online and in stores as pellets, sprays or oral drops, and are supposed to be taken with a very-low calorie diet of less than 800 calories per day.
In November 2011, HCG Diet Direct and six other companies received warning letters from the FTC and the FDA.
“These HCG products marketed over-the-counter are unproven to help with weight loss and are potentially dangerous even if taken as directed,” said Ilisa Bernstein, acting director of the Office of Compliance in FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, at the time. “A very low-calorie diet should only be used under proper medical supervision.”
The company falsely claimed the drops were approved by the FDA and charged approximately $35 for a seven-day supply, according to the FTC. It had sales totaling $3 million between 2009 and 2012.
Executives from HCG Diet Direct did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
Three of the four companies charged owe money to reimburse customers, according to the FTC: Sensa will pay $26.5 million; L’Occitane, Inc. will pay $450,000; and LeanSpa will surrender “cash, real estate and personal property” totaling $7.3 million. HCG Diet Direct has submitted financial statements to the FTC saying it is unable to pay the $3.2 million judgment; the fee has been suspended.
The companies and defendants named in the legal charges are barred from making any other weight-loss claims about dietary supplements, food or drugs unless they have reliable scientific evidence, according to the FTC.
Americans spend billions of dollars every year on supplements. The industry reported an estimated $25 billion in sales in 2009.
“Market analysts suggest that the downturn in the economy has led to increased spending on these products, as consumers attempt to manage their own health care and avoid expensive doctor visits and prescription medications,” the FTC said on its website.