Contact: Leila Farzan, 202/332-9110, ext. 321 or

Brian Branton, ext. 351

Weight-Loss Firms Keep Consumers in the Dark About Prices, Effectiveness

Health Groups Demand FTC Action

Some of the nation's largest commercial weight-loss programs fail to tell potential customers about the full costs of their services, and fail to provide information about how well -- or how poorly -- they work, according to a leading non-profit health-advocacy group.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) examined the nation's largest weight-loss programs and found that some require clients to purchase exorbitantly priced foods, others distort the cost of mandatory fees, and none routinely disclose data on how much weight their clients actually lose and keep off.

In 1995, 7.5 million Americans spent more than $1.78 billion at commercial weight-loss centers. The five largest centers, Jenny Craig, Nutri/System, Physicians Weight Loss Centers, Diet Center, and Weight Watchers, represent the majority of the industry.

CSPI and nine other health organizations, weight-loss experts, and consumer advocates petitioned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today to step up its regulation of the industry.

In visits to Washington, D.C.-area weight-loss centers, CSPI found that:

"Millions of people enroll in commercial weight-loss programs with little idea of how much these programs really cost and how much weight they can reasonably expect to lose and keep off," stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI director of legal affairs. "Without information on price and effectiveness, choosing a weight-loss center is pure guesswork," he said.

The CSPI petition urged the FTC to require weight-loss firms to provide consumers with standardized information about cost, program duration, effectiveness, staff credentials, and possible health risks. The petition charged that the failure to disclose such information constitutes an "unfair and deceptive practice."

"Until weight-loss centers are made to tell people what they really charge, and are required to collect and disclose data about their effectiveness, people will continue shelling out good money on a wish and a prayer instead of on realistic expectations," stated Leila Farzan, CSPI staff attorney. "Maintaining and disclosing data on effectiveness will promote competition, spur innovation, and help weight-loss centers make a real contribution to reducing obesity rates."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one of every three American adults is seriously overweight. The average person on a weight-loss regimen gains back almost half of the lost weight in just six months and more than two-thirds of it after two years.

"Obesity is a national health problem that's been escalating rapidly," said Dr. Denise Bruner, Washington representative of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, whose members specialize in weight loss. "It is costing us almost $70 billion a year in health-care costs and lost productivity and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, gall bladder disease, and cancer. The cure doesn't lie in spending money on pricey cardboard cartons of processed foods, but in a basic shift in lifestyle that emphasizes both healthful eating and exercise."

"For years, the FTC has been on a treadmill trying to stop deceptive advertising practices by weight-loss centers on a case-by-case basis. It's time for the FTC to take a new systematic approach and require that potential customers be provided up-front with a standard set of disclosures regarding price and effectiveness," Silverglade added.

The 49-page petition to the FTC was endorsed by the American Society of Bariatric Physicians, Association of Schools of Public Health, Association of State and Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumers League, National Council on the Aging, and Public Voice for Food and Health Policy. The petition was also endorsed by obesity expert Dr. George Blackburn of Deaconess Hospital in Boston, and New York State Assemblyman Alexander Gromack, sponsor of legislation requiring commercial weight-loss centers to better inform consumers.

CSPI is a health-advocacy organization that campaigned successfully for mandatory nutrition labeling and restrictions on misleading health claims for food products. CSPI is also well known for studies of the fat content in theater popcorn and restaurant foods. It is funded largely by the 750,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and does not accept funds from industry or government.

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