By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/15/2007 4:53:07 PM ET 2007-01-15T21:53:07

On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission took four companies to task for allegedly using false and misleading advertising to sell their weight loss products.

“This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rampant fraud in the area of over-the-counter weight loss products,” says Dr. Louis Aronne, a clinical professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.

Dr. Aronne, a national authority on weight loss and obesity, told MSNBC.com’s ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum there is “no credible medical evidence” that any of the over-the-counter weight loss products on the market today can deliver on their advertised claims. He recently helped found the Reality Council, which campaigns against the misleading claims of diet-pill makers.

How would you describe the marketplace right now?

It’s in chaos. And it’s a shame because people believe that because a product is on the shelf and being sold at a reputable store that it must have some credibility; that there must be some evidence that it works. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. Products need no evidence that they work in order to be marketed as effective and safe.

A recent survey shows two out of three Americans believe the federal government tests this stuff to make sure it’s safe. Is that one reason why people believe the outlandish claims?

There’s a pervasive misconception that products for weight loss are tested before they get out on the shelf and the fact is that none of them is tested. If you do a search of a component of these products, such as Hoodia, there is not a single published study in a credible medical journal showing that a compound like that causes weight loss and helps people to maintain that weight loss over time.”

Don’t people have to use some common sense when it comes to weight loss?

I think people do have to wake up and get a dose of reality. And realize that these are people who are preying on them. These are people who are picking your pockets by promising they’re going to deliver a result that is just not going to happen.

And it’s upsetting. Because to me, it’s not only an economic problem, but also I think people get demoralized. They don’t do the things that work because they think they’re doing something that should work. And then when they don’t get the result they see in the commercial, they’re demoralized and give up and go back to what they were doing before. And that’s not what we think people should be doing.”

Do you find it discouraging that a lot of these products are being sold by big companies?

The bigger companies see that there’s a marketplace out there. People are making a fortune selling these products even though they don’t work.

How did your Reality Council come about?

It’s based on my frustration and the frustration of other health professionals in related fields —nutrition, diabetes and health care policy — with what’s going on out there; how this system makes no sense. We recognize that we’ve got to do something.

We’ve got to try to mobilize people, so that buyers for large companies won’t buy these products without evidence that they work. We may have to go to large companies that sell these products and say, ‘Why are you selling this? It doesn’t work.’ ”

We may need to go to the federal government and ask, 'Why aren’t you regulating this more closely?' People think it’s regulated, maybe it should be regulated. Maybe it should be regulated.

If you look at these over-the-counter weight loss products, the ones sold by the ads that the FTC now says are fraudulent, these are not sold not by drug dealers; these are sold by huge chain stores. They’re selling millions and billions of dollars of these products that are being advertised in a fraudulent manner.

They’re making significant profits. Why aren’t they asking if the product works? I think consumers should go back to these companies, go back to Wal-Mart and Costco, go back to Rite-Aid and CVS, and demand your money back. Ask them, why are you selling this product? That’s the kind of thing it’s going to take to change these behaviors.

No one’s trying to take anything off the market. Nobody’s trying to stop people from taking supplements. What we’re saying is that if you’re going to advertise a product and you’re going to say that it’s safe and effective, then it sure better be safe and effective.

Should companies be required to prove that their products are safe and effective before they can sell them?

I think that these products should be held to the exact same standard [as prescription drugs] because they’re being used to treat very similar problems. I see no difference and I see no reason why they should be held to a different standard.

When you look at the standard these are held to generally, it’s more like the standards that are used for cosmetics. With a skin cream, if they say it’s going to take away wrinkles and it doesn’t take away wrinkles, well, you lost your money.

That’s not the case when you’re talking about being overweight, high blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems associated with being overweight and obese. This is a completely different type of problem, and I think we really need to see some movement in this area if we’re going to make progress in the war on obesity.

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