Jan. 7, 2014 at 1:10 PM ET
The website promises you can lose weight without dieting – all you have to do is sprinkle “Sensa” on your food like salt and pepper. But it’s a false claim, the Federal Trade Commission says.
The FTC says makers of Sensa have agreed to pay $26.5 million to settle charges they have been misleading consumers with their ads. The FTC is also announcing similar actions againt L’Occitane, which sells a "slimming” body cream; HCG Diet Direct, which sells an unproven human hormone treatment, and LeanSpa, whch promotes a “colon cleanse.” It’s all bogus, the FTC says.
It's part of an FTC effort to collect $34 million on behalf of consumers.
“This is the second-biggest deceptive advertising settlement in FTC history,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, told a news conference.
“The chances of being successful at substantial weight loss just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing creams on your body or just using a supplement, well, they’re slim to none.”
Not only is the FTC collecting money to pay back to consumers who bought the products, but they’re asking newspapers, magazines, television and other media outlets to stop carrying false and misleading ads.
And the agency is publishing some common sense guidelines to help consumers and media ad-buyers spot the most outrageously false claims.
A few to look out for:
Lose weight without diet or exercise! “The only thing you’ll lose is money,” the FTC advises
Lose weight no matter how much you eat of your favorite foods! “Losing weight requires sensible food choices,” the FTC says.
Just take a pill! “Doctors, dieticians, and other experts agree that there’s simply no magic way to lose weight without diet or exercise. Even pills approved by FDA to block the absorption of fat or help you eat less and feel full are to be taken with a low-calorie, low-fat diet and regular exercise,” the FTC notes.
Lose weight with our miracle diet patch or cream! “There’s nothing you can wear or apply to your skin that will cause you to lose weight,” the agency says.
Americans are desperate to lose weight — two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese. But drug companies are struggling to find a safe diet pill. Only four drugs are legally on the prescription market now — Qsymia, Belviq, orlistat and phentermine. Several have been withdrawn after safety concerns. The only other option for severely obese people, besides diet and exercise, is surgery to limit how much they can eat.
The FTC has a court order barring the companies and their principals from making weight-loss claims about dietary supplements, foods, or drugs unless they have two adequate and well-controlled human clinical studies supporting the claims. They’re also not supposed to make any other health-related claim unless it’s backed up by real evidence and not made-up studies.
Makers of at least some of the products seemed unrepentant. Sensa’s site was still up during and after the FTC news conference. “Sensa uses the science of smell and taste to help you recognize when the body says, ‘Enough is enough,'” the website promises. It does add, in very small writing, a note saying it pays at least some of the people making testimonials.
"Sensa Products, LLC made a business decision to settle with the FTC so it could focus on the core of its business: its customers. The settlement includes no admission of wrongful conduct by the company," the company said in a statement. "The company has agreed to make changes to its advertising claims but otherwise will continue business as usual."
The company's founder, Chicago-based Dr. Alan Hirsch, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The FTC's complaint names parent company Sensa, Inc., CEO Adam Goldenberg, and Hirsch.
“The defendants neither admit nor deny liability in these cases," the FTC’s Mary Engle told the news conference.
Rich says Sensa Products LLC made at least $364 million selling its products, but Engle says the company spent much of that in more advertising. “Advertising is expensive,” Engle said.
Another of the companies targeted by FTC sells products purporting to contain human choriogonadotropin or HCG, a hormone produced by women in the early stages of pregnancy. FTC says HCG has been falsely promoted for years as a weight-loss agent, although no responsibly conducted studies have shown it works.
“HCG failed to produce any studies supporting these dramatic weight loss claims. We’ve also challenged the defendant’s claim that its weight loss plan was safe,” Rich said. It advocates an extremely low-calorie, 500-calories-a-day diet, which should only be undertaken with medical supervision. But the FTC’s action against HCG Diet Direct — whose website was still up as of Tuesday afternoon — was suspended because it said the company couldn’t pay the $3.2 million judgment.
In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration and FTC issued warning letters to seven companies selling HCG products saying they don’t work and cannot be promoted for weight loss.
L'Occitane's "Almond Shaping Delight" was also still on sale online Tuesday, even though the New York-based company had been fined $450,000 for making false claims about it. “Almond tree buds, rich in draining flavanoids, helps release existing fat cells throughout the entire body,” the site promises. No substance has ever been shown to actually do this.
LeanSpa, which FTC has been acting against for months, will surrender assets worth $7.3 million, the FTC says. The FTC is trying to get the company’s founder Boris Mizhen and his wife Angelina Strano to surrender all their assets.
The Food and Drug Administration often acts with FTC. Recently, FDA moved against diet supplement companies selling supposedly natural products that not only don't take weight off, but also contain potentially dangerous drugs.