By Joanne P. Ikeda, M.A., R.D.
From Radiance Fall 1999
opened the newspaper and there it was: another full-page ad for yet another miracle weight-loss product. The three-inch headline screamed out, "Blast All Your Excess Body Fat Off You Whether Your Stubborn Metabolism Likes It or Not." The subhead read, "No Discipline! No Soul-Searching Willpower! No Starvation or Back-Breaking Exercise! Eat Your Favorite Foods!"
According to the ad, extensive research at leading U.S. medical schools had led to a triple medical breakthrough that was rocking the entire weight-loss industry: "This epoch Superformula will cause a fat-burning extravaganza unlike anything you have ever witnessed before. Your friends and family will be awestruck as they watch pounds of fat melt off your body like ice cubes melt on a sweltering hot August afternoon!"
Once again U.S. consumers were being swindled. And I was tired of witnessing it. I have been professionally active as a registered dietitian for more than thirty years. I have seen these ads year after year, and I have called officials at the Food and Drug Administration about them numerous times. "Not much we can do about it," they would say. "These con artists set up a post office box, collect the checks, cash them, close down, and move on. By the time we get an injunction, they’re gone, probably living high, cruising in the Bahamas."
But this "fat-burning extravaganza" ad was so outrageous that I decided to try again. I called an old friend at the FDA and asked, "Did you see that ad for Superformula in the Oakland Tribune this morning?" She hadn’t, but when I told her about it, she suggested that I write to the Federal Trade Commission. "They have started to pursue consumer fraud cases in a fairly aggressive manner," she said, "so it might be worth your time to send them the ad along with a letter of complaint."
I wrote my letter and sent it off, never expecting to hear from the FTC.
he same afternoon, a communications specialist from the Office of Media Relations at the University of California called me with a question. As the Cooperative Extension nutrition education specialist in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the Universitiy of California, Berkeley, one of my jobs is to communicate new research findings to the public. "I want to know all about this new weight-loss product," the media relations person said. She was referring to the very product that had enraged me. "It’s a scam," I said.
"Oh no, it couldn’t be!" my colleague protested. "The Oakland Tribune is a very reputable newspaper, and the ad says that research on this product was done at leading medical schools. Have you checked with researchers over at the University of California, San Francisco? Maybe they were involved."
"It’s a scam," I repeated.
"I just don’t see how it could be. Please don’t say that if any of the reporters call you. The university might be sued," she pleaded.
"Scam artists don’t sue," I replied.
"I don’t think you should call them scam artists either," she said.
"Thanks for the advice," I said. I hung up, absolutely determined to expose these scam, scam, scam artists!
I looked over the ad again and noted that the "doctor" testifying about the effectiveness of this product was supposedly president of the American College of Nutrition, a reputable professional organization. I couldn’t believe that they would be associated with this product, so I called their offices. The executive director asked me to fax him a copy of the ad. Three days later, I received a phone call from the real president of the American College of Nutrition.
"Our office faxed me a copy of the ad while I was in Florida on vacation," he told me. "The address for this company was about thirty miles from where we were staying, so my brother-in-law and I drove over there. All we found was an empty office. And, by the way, not only has this doctor never been president of our organization, he hasn’t ever been a member."
"Maybe he doesn’t exist," I replied.
"No, he exists. I checked with the American Medical Association, and they have him listed at a post office box in Colorado. No telephone or fax. Just the post office box. And he isn’t in practice anymore. He doesn’t have a current medical license."
"Are we surprised?" I asked.
"No, we aren’t. But he may be when he gets a letter from our attorney telling him to stop stating that he is affiliated with our organization."
embers of the media often call on me to discuss current topics in nutrition, and around this same time I was interviewed on a local TV news program about chromium picolinate, one of the "active" ingredients in Superformula as well as in a number of other useless weight-loss products. Again I said, "It’s a scam."
The next day, I got a phone call from someone who had seen the show. "I wonder," she said, "if you are interested in helping county district attorneys prosecute some of these companies for consumer fraud. We need an expert who can challenge the claims they make for their weight-loss products."
"You’ve come to the right person," I said.
And so I began my career as an expert on fraudulent claims for weight-loss products. A county district attorney would send a letter to a company quoting the claims the company was making for its product and asking them to provide evidence substantiating those claims. Then the attorney would ask me to evaluate the company’s evidence. I would conduct an extensive scientific literature search to identify any research on the "active" ingredients. I could pretty much count on finding one or two studies done on rats showing that the active ingredient caused the little beasties to lose weight, to have more fat in their feces, or to lose their appetite for rat chow. Occasionally, I would find a human study, but it usually had nothing to do with weight loss. The ingredient might have changed the microflora of the gut when given to humans for two weeks. Or maybe it improved wound healing when applied topically. Every so often, I would find a study with humans using one of the compounds for weight loss. Invariably, these studies had major flaws: there was no control group; or there were only eight subjects; or the study was only four weeks in length; or there was no attempt to track calorie intake or physical activity of subjects; or subjects did not follow the instructions they had been given. Sometimes the diet companies shared the results of studies they had supposedly performed. Invariably, they were unable to give us the names and addresses of persons who had participated in their studies.
One company the district attorney was interested in prosecuting was SlimAmerica, the distributor of Super-formula. I wrote a full report on the major ingredients in this product and submitted it to him. About a month later, I received a phone call from—guess who? An attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. It had been eight months since I had sent my original letter of complaint to them, so the call was unexpected.
"Hello, this is David Speigel, attorney with the FTC. We received your letter of complaint concerning SlimAmerica, and we have decided to prosecute the company for consumer fraud."
"Really? That’s great news!"
"We are currently in the process of gathering information on the ingredients in Superformula," he told me.
"Are you aware that I am already working with a county istrict attorney who is also investigating SlimAmerica for consumer fraud?" I asked.
Reader, I soon found myself employed as an expert consultant to the FTC on the SlimAmerica case.
learned a lot working with FTC attorneys. I found out that the federal government, with a few exceptions, does not pursue consumer fraud cases unless there is potential injury or harm to consumers. If a well-known, legitimate company is involved, and competitors complain, then the FTC may be pressured to investigate. Or if there are really big bucks involved, the FTC might act. In the case of Slim America, consumers had been defrauded of somewhere between $5 and $17 million in one year! The FTC couldn’t determine the exact amount, because most of the money was hidden in overseas accounts they couldn’t identify. The owner of SlimAmerica had been convicted of consumer fraud at least twice previously, and had gone to Mexico to escape a jail term in California. The FTC attorneys told me that consumer fraud artists rarely spend time in jail because juries and judges tend to be lenient on white-collar criminals.
One reason that I felt comfortable working with attorneys is that my husband of thirty years is an attorney. He has always told me, "You can buy an expert witness who will say anything that you want them to say." Well, that certainly turned out to be the case with respect to SlimAmerica. At a hearing in Florida, the defense attorneys put a doctor on the stand. He claimed to be the leading bariatric physician in Southern Florida and supposedly had treated hundreds of obese patients. The FTC attorneys asked him if he used Superformula. He said he hadn’t, but that he had used the ingredients and was certain that the product lived up to its advertising claims.
Then they asked him how long ago he had learned about Superformula. Three days was his reply. And how much was he paid to evaluate the product? A piddling $2500 per hour, and another $10,000 to appear as an expert witness in court. I sat there listening to this, feeling more disgusted by the minute. I was getting paid a very small fraction of that amount, and most of it had gone to pay the graduate student who helped me with the scientific literature search. At least I could look at myself in the mirror. (This doctor appeared to be having trouble doing that: he hadn’t shaved in at least three days and looked like he slept in his suit.)
SlimAmerica refused to settle with the FTC. They had nothing to lose. They could pay their expensive defense attorneys from the money they made scamming the public. There was a trial in 1997, but the judge delayed handing down a decision. In fact, he is still thinking about it! The company is in receivership, which means that it is no longer in business and its assets cannot be tapped by the owner unless authorized by the courts (he does have permission to use this money to pay for his defense). And the owner is free. Free to think up new ways to defraud the public and make more millions. Unfortunately, he is not alone.
In my ongoing work with county district attorneys in California, just about every week I hear about a new mail-order weight-loss product that also promises to dissolve weight with yet another "scientifically proven" potion. And you know what I have to say about that: It’s a scam! ©
JOANNE P. IKEDA, M.A., R.D., is Cooperative Extension nutrition education specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the media representative for the California Dietetic Association. You can contact her at the Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3104; phone: 510-642-2790; fax: 510-642-0535; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At this printing: On July 19, 1999, the Federal Trade Commission announced that a federal district court found SlimAmerica, Inc. and its principals violated federal consumer protection laws by making false claims about the efficacy of their "Superformula" diet product. The court ruled that the defendants should be permanently prohibited from such practices and pay more than $8.3 million in redress to consumers who purchased "Super-Formula."
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