As part of its ongoing effort to rein in exorbitant health claims, FTC charged Manon Fernet and the company she controls, which did business as the Freedom Center Against Obesity, for defrauding consumers with weight loss claims connected to the products. According to FTC, using direct mail advertising, the company claimed that users could eat as much of any food as they wanted, and lose 15 to 20 pounds a week, without exercising and the weight loss would be permanent.
“These defendants made outrageous claims about their supposed weight-loss treatment, and encouraged overweight consumers to forgo diet and exercise,” said Jessica Rich, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The company’s advertising claimed to be from a Dr. Joseph Breechman, who was identified as the Director of Weight Loss Research for the purported Freedom Center Against Obesity, which was supposedly in California. The address for the Freedom Center Against Obesity that appeared in Double Shot ads and on the product label was in fact just the address of the defendants’ fulfillment house.
In the mailer, “Dr. Joseph Breechman” was quoted as saying, “This plate of spaghetti has 720 calories! But when you take DOUBLE SHOT you will only absorb… 72 calories!” The product consisted of blue capsules that supposedly burned fat, and red ones that supposedly blocked calories. In addition, the defendants allegedly claimed that the effectiveness of Double Shot as a weight-loss treatment had been proven by clinical studies.
Fernet is linked to a number of business entities which go by many names, including Global Weight Management Research. The Better Business Bureau warns that the company is not accredited by the BBB and the address given for this company is a UPS store mail box in Ottawa, Canada. “The BBB cautions consumers about purchasing diet products over the internet or from an advertisement flyer; and about diet pills that promise rapid weight loss without dieting or exercising,” the organization said. Information on the BBB website shows at least one case in which this company tried to pass its products off as coming from a different company in Nevada by cloning that company's website and offering its weight loss products for sale there.
When is ‘outrageous’ merely ridiculous?
The claims of losing 20 pounds a week without diet or lifestyle changes verges on the ridiculous, but even so, any sort of weight loss claims, however ludicrous, that are based on testimonials and not on clinical evidence will get a company into hot water, said Justin Prochnow, an attorney in the firm Greenberg Traurig.
“If you don’t know how much the typical person lost, you shouldn’t use the claim,” he told NutraIngrdients-USA. “Claims like, everyone will lose weight, weight loss without exercise, miracle pill-type claims will get FTC’s attention.”
While not trying to defend this company’s actions, this case does raise the question of how outrageous a claim has to be in order to be seen by the consumer as a pure marketing ploy (for example, an autodealer’s claim that “I’ll match any offer or I’ll give you the car!”). Prochnow said that depends to some degree on the product category.
“There was a case in which a customer tried to sue (and failed) because of claims that a certain body wash would get him more women. And it didn’t get him more women,” Prochnow said. He also cited the idea that litigation surrounding the word “natural” on a shampoo would probably be seen as falling under the aegis of pure marketing claims about a product rather than an actual descriptor because courts have held that consumers undertstand how shampoo is made. “There aren’t any shampoo trees,” Prochnow said.
“But weight loss is a little bit more difficult. As soon as someone starts talking about how much weight they lost . . . For the FTC weight loss is certainly at the top of their radar right now,” he said.