July 27, 2012
Summer bummer: The season’s half over, and you still can’t fit into your swimsuit. That’s why super-savvy marketers of weight-loss products hope they’ve got your number.
Pills and diet plans promising to help shed pounds in days have made the weight-loss industry a more than $62-billion-a-year business, up from about $38 billion 10 years ago, estimates Market Data. But most diet pills haven’t been approved for safe weight loss by the Food and Drug Administration, and products often make unsubstantiated scientific claims, consumer experts say.
Dietary supplements don’t need to register with the FDA, nor do they require approval before going on sale; the FDA only takes action if the product later proves to be unsafe. But several companies promise their products will help you slip more easily into those jeans. And consumers seem as eager as ever to reach deep into their wallets for a quick, easy fix.
The FDA—which just approved two new diet pills this summer for the first time in 13 years, Qsymia and Belviq—tries to warn consumers against dangerous products by updating its list of “tainted” weight-loss supplements, meaning it has identified hidden active ingredients.
In addition, the Federal Trade Commission looks for misleading and false advertising. But with the number of new products that hit markets, officials say they find it difficult to keep up.
“These products don’t require any pre-approval, and the government lacks the resources to look at more than a handful of them,” said the FTC’s Richard Cleland. “One of the problems is consumers assume these products wouldn’t be out in the marketplace unless the FDA or FTC had approved the product, and that’s just not the case.”
Some companies create fake news sites with reviews of their products they can link to on their websites, Cleland said. “The most dangerous thing is the consumer is going to think the solution is in the pill,” he said. “If there was a pill out there that was going to cure the weight-loss problem, we would have it.”
Among the latest fads:
- Radiofrequency waves. LipoTron 3000, ringing in at up to $85,000, is a device that’s part of the larger Lipo-Ex program and uses radiofrequency waves to target fat cells. It hasn’t been approved by the FDA as a weight-loss product, but rather as a device for pain relief and increased circulation, said Mark Durante of Advanced Aesthetic Concepts, the distributor of the product. Three medical spas reached by USA Today, including Tampa’s Signature Medical Spa, Chicago’s Sculpt Medical Spa and New Jersey’s Baxt CosMedical, said the device was a non-invasive alternative to liposuction.
- Super supplements. Consumers are instructed to use HCG Platinum, or “bottled confidence,” in conjunction with a diet consisting only of foods from a “healthy foods list.” For 30 days, dieters eat mostly lean protein and vegetables, and drink two 1-milliliter drops of the supplement, which is sold at about $130 for a two-month supply. Just last month, however, the FDA warned against over-the-counter HCG products and said it issued warning letters with the FTC to companies illegally marketing these products as weight-loss aids.
- “Sprinkle” crystals. Sensa is a “sprinkle” diet that doesn’t require any change in the foods you eat or ramped-up exercise routines. All you need to do is add the crystals on every dish—just as would salt or pepper, its website boasts—to enhance smell and taste so you feel full sooner. It also points to a six-month study that showed participants lost weight, but there haven’t been any studies that determine long-term effects. Sensa sells a “complete” six-month package for $289.
“This is largely, if not entirely, a complete fraud,” said physician Sidney Wolfe, director of the health research group at Public Citizen. “There’s no scientific evidence.” In an emailed statement, Sensa said it “works for people who use it on all the foods they eat. The system is simple, but you must do your part.”
What does all this mean for those desperately seeking a solution? “Popping pills or taking something because it’s aggressively marketed doesn’t mean it’s effective or safe,” said Barbara Brooks, a senior partner of the Strategy Group. “A certain amount of onus is put on the consumer.”
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