FTC’s “Gut Check”: Is Self-Policing Enough for Weight Loss Products?

A few weeks ago, Dr. Mehmet Oz created a media buzz once again. But this time it wasn’t on his popular TV show Dr. Oz or on one of his many Today Show or magazine features endorsing health products and the latest weight loss tricks. Instead, he was testifying at a Senate hearing about some of the very products he’s touted in the past.

On June 17, a Senate panel investigated a series of recent false advertising concerns for various weight loss products. The hearing was part of a larger effort to crack down against fake diet products and claims. Led by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the committee took issue with Dr. Oz and the many weight loss products he’s evangelically featured on his show in the past. They focused on the language he’s used, and also voiced concern over other companies using footage from his show as a third-party endorsement to boost sales. Dr. Oz admitted his past verbiage was “flowery” and the segments on his show “provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers,” but he believes in the supplements so much that he takes them himself and gives them to his family.

Of particular concern is the promotion of Pure Green Coffee, raspberry ketone supplements and garcinia cambogia. On his show, Dr. Oz has said things such as, “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type: green coffee extract.” Or with the text, ‘No Exercise. No Diet. No Effort’ on screen behind him, claiming, “Thanks to brand new scientific research, I can tell you about a revolutionary fat buster: It’s called garcinia cambogia.” The problem, however, is that the research supporting these weight loss supplements is weak at best – and weight loss supplement advertising is extremely difficult for the Federal Trade Commission to enforce.

A quick tangent and Journalism Law 101 refresher…
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for protecting consumers from deceptive advertising and marketing activities that raise health or safety concerns. Claims must also be supported by scientific evidence. While the role of the FTC seems simple enough when considering a lot of common products and services on the market, the challenge of policing the $2.4 billion industry of weight loss pills, products and services is daunting. Unlike drugs, dietary supplements do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When safety concerns arise, the FDA can investigate and potentially remove a product from the shelves, but banning dietary supplements requires unbelievably lengthy legal and scientific steps to carry out. Because the FDA is ill-equipped to monitor and enforce, most of the burden to protect consumers falls on the FTC.

During the hearing, Senator McCaskill referenced the FTC’s “Gut Check” self-test program and asked Dr. Oz why he would promote products knowing they failed the test. The FTC’s Gut Check was created to educate advertisers about potentially questionable weight loss product and service claims. With the lack of monitoring and regulating of dietary supplements, the FTC puts some of the onus on advertisers and media running the ads to check against seven unreasonable claims. If the claims are made in the ads, there’s a good chance the product is bogus and the ads should not run. The Gut Check statements are:

  1. Causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise;
  2. Causes substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats;
  3. Causes permanent weight loss even after the consumer stops using product;
  4. Blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight;
  5. Safely enables consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks;
  6. Causes substantial weight loss for all users; or
  7. Causes substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

It is also suggested that consumers use the Gut Check guidelines to detect false or harmful claims themselves and help police fraudulent advertising. Getting to a point of mass consumer education about the enormous dietary supplement industry will take a lot of time and effort.

The overall message of the FTC hearing was to halt deceptive dietary supplement advertising and begin protecting consumers against harmful weight loss products. In perhaps one of the more impactful moments of the trial, Senator McCaskill challenged Dr. Oz and his use of influence by stating, “You are very powerful. With great power comes a great deal of responsibility.”

What do you think? Does the responsibility for ethically promoting and advertising dietary supplements fall on the advertiser? On the consumer to educate themselves? Or on the FTC to regulate? We’d love to know your thoughts.

(And if you have an hour and a half to spare, here’s the full video of the Senate hearing.)