COMMENT: Help needed to stop false advertising

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The US government is failing to stem the tide of false weight-loss advertising through regulation alone. Educating consumers and rallying the media industry is a positive next step. However, there is no shortage of consumers desperate to believe such claims, or media sources willing to accept any advertising dollars. As such, the effectiveness of this campaign will be difficult to monitor.

Over a year ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released an assessment of US weight-loss advertising showing that 55% of 300 weight-loss ads collected in the first half of 2001 included claims that were almost certainly false or misleading. This week, the FTC launched its follow-up recommendations, calling on consumers and members of the media to help them reduce the prevalence of such advertising.

While the FTC recently won two separate million-dollar lawsuits and filed at least 160 others challenging false and unproven weight-loss claims over the past 13 years, its legislative and litigious threat against false advertising is clearly insufficient.

According to an October 2003 eDiets-Datamonitor survey, more than 63% of consumers will spend extra money on various foods when dieting, compared to when not dieting. Estimates of the US dieting market reach $35 billion and over. Dieting is clearly big business and consumers are consistently willing to pay more for what they perceive will help them achieve their weight-loss goals.

It is the responsibility of the FTC to curtail the growth and existence of unscrupulous manufacturers and marketers as best they can, and its latest initiative is to raise public awareness and hope the media will join in the fight. The FTC has released a guide to help consumers and the media spot deceptive weight-loss products and refuse to distribute such advertising. Some conglomerates already have corporate policies in place that help to weed out undesirable advertising, but many do not, leaving it to local offices to judge the suitability of local advertising.

Hopefully, newspapers, magazines and cable stations' need for advertising dollars will not undermine the goals of the FTC. Consistently assisting the exposure of false advertising should be a credibility issue for these companies, but ultimately money talks. Consumer education will more likely be the ultimate solution to this ongoing problem, although the hope of a quick-fix to obesity or being overweight will always be more appealing than facing up to new disciplined lifestyle-changing eating regimes.

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