Hungry to prevent more companies from selling allegedly bogus weight loss products, the FTC has settled yet another false advertising suit against various sellers of diet pills, in a case similar to February’s Sale Slash settlement blogged about here. The FTC’s latest diet pill settlement enjoins distributors of the dietary supplement known as Pure Green Coffee from claiming, among other things, that any dietary supplement, food or drug causes or assists in causing weight loss or fat loss, unless such claims are not misleading and are substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.
According to the FTC’s amended complaint filed in the Middle District of Florida in February of 2015, Defendants began selling Pure Green Coffee shortly after an April 2012 episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” aired, in which Dr. Oz featured a segment highlighting the possible weight loss benefits of green coffee bean extract. Dr. Oz told his viewers that this green coffee extract “may hold the secret to weight loss that you’ve been waiting for,” citing a study where participants who took the extract lost 17 pounds in 22 weeks by “doing absolutely nothing extra in their day.” Just weeks after this episode aired, defendants launched Pure Green Coffee, a dietary supplement that purports to contain green coffee bean extract, and advertised its effectiveness in causing weight loss. These ads included statements such as: “Cut Pounds of Stomach Fat Every Week By Using This 1 Weird Old Trick,” “Drop 3 Dress Sizes, Buy Pure Green Coffee, Discover the Shocking Truth About AMERICA’s Hottest Diet,” and “Lose 20 pounds in just 4 weeks.” Defendants also included the video footage from The Dr. Oz Show on the Pure Green Coffee website.
The FTC took issue with these claims, giving little weight to the clinical study on which defendants were basing the claims. First, the FTC noted that this study was funded by another manufacturer of a dietary supplement containing ingredients derived from green coffee beans. The FTC also criticized the study for, among other things, failing to document how the subjects and administrators were blinded, and for failing to disclose whether the subjects exercised during the study.
Defendants’ weight loss claims were not the only thing the FTC took issue with. The FTC also weighed in on Pure Green Coffee’s use of allegedly fake testimonials and fake news sites or blogs that were, according to the FTC, actually paid advertisements. The FTC alleged that the video testimonials on Pure Green Coffee’s websites were not by neutral, disinterested users, but rather by individuals who were paid $200 and received a free thirty-day supply of product in exchange for providing video testimony, while this compensation was nowhere disclosed. In addition, the Defendants allegedly created websites designed to resemble legitimate and objective consumer news sites, with domain names such as dailyconsumeralert.org and healthylivingreviewed.com, which featured what appeared to be mastheads for news organizations like Women’s Health Journal and Healthy Living Reviewed, and which included logos of actual news organizations such as CNN and MSNBC. What’s more, according to the FTC, Defendants hired affiliate marketers that also used fake-news format advertisements to lure consumers to Pure Green Coffee sites, without disclosing that these affiliates were being compensated to promote these products.
Recently, Judge Steven Merryday of the Middle District of Florida signed an order settling the FTC’s claims against the majority of the defendants. The order enjoins the settling defendants not only from making any representations that a dietary supplement, food, or drug causes or assists in causing weight loss, unless the representation is not misleading and is supported by competent and reliable evidence, but also from making claims regarding any benefits, performance or efficacy of any product, service or program that they manufacture, market or sell in the future, unless the claim is non-misleading and supported by competent and reliable substantiating evidence. In addition, the order sets forth various provisions addressing the use of fake news websites, fake consumer testimonials by non-independent consumers, and affiliate marketing. While a judgment of $30 million was also entered in favor of the FTC, the order suspended payment of this total amount if the settling defendants paid the FTC $160,800 and fulfilled a list of other conditions.
The FTC has made clear that it does not take unsubstantiated weight loss supplement claims lightly. Watch this space for more ongoing coverage of these claims.