By MARSHA MERCER
In the Roaring Twenties, an enterprising young English immigrant living in Chicago began selling hope in a jar.
“I, M.J. McGowan, after five years of tireless research, have made the discovery you have been waiting for,” he announced in ads in True Romance and other magazines.
“At last I can tell you how to reduce quickly, comfortably – without the bother of tiresome exercise, without the boredom of stupid diet, without resorting to enervating salt baths, without rubber suits,” he said.
Simply pat on the new Reducine cream, his ads claimed, and “excess fat is literally dissolved away, leaving the figure slim and properly rounded, giving lithe grace to the body every man and woman desires…quickly, surely, and permanently.”
The Federal Trade Commission wasn’t buying.
McGowan had published “false and misleading statements as to the quality and effectiveness of said compound,” the FTC charged, and got a cease-and-desist order. It was the first time the agency had gone after a purveyor of false hope in the fight against fat.
In the 87 years since then, the FTC has filed hundreds of cases challenging false and unproven weight-loss claims, Mary Knoelbel Engle told a Senate panel on Tuesday. She’s the associate director of the Division of Advertising Practices in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
And yet Americans’ hunger for a magic potion is stronger than ever. We spent an estimated $2.4 billion on weight-loss products and services last year, and the growing industry is expected to reach $2.7 billion by 2018. Nevertheless, nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.
“The endless flood of unfounded claims being made in the weight-loss industry vividly illustrates the challenges we, and consumers, are up against,” Engle told the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection.
Next to her at the witness table – and in the hot seat -- was Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Dubbed “America’s doctor” by Oprah Winfrey, Oz is a cardiothoracic surgeon with a loyal daytime TV viewership and a huge reach. The Doctor Oz Show is seen in 118 countries. Senators grilled Oz about why he touts nontraditional, “miracle” weight-loss remedies.
For example, in April 2012, Oz said, “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type. It's green coffee extract."
Sales of the dietary supplement skyrocketed, and the FTC started investigating. Last month, the agency filed suit in Florida, alleging that the company promoted Pure Green Coffee with Oz show footage and claimed clinical proof that people could lose weight rapidly without changing their eating or exercise habits. The FTC says more than 536,000 bottles of the product have been sold since May 2012.
“I get that you do a lot of good on your show,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who heads the subcommittee, told Oz. “But I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true.”
Oz contends he’s trying to motivate and energize people.
“My show is about hope,” he said. Talking about the latest products gives viewers hope, and they may try something that jumpstarts their weight loss, he said.
Oz doesn’t get income from the products, and he warns that the products aren’t for long-term use. He has sued some companies that use his name, face and words in their ads.
He conceded, though, that “I do think I’ve made it more difficult for the FTC” because “in an intent to engage viewers, I use flowery language. I use language that was very passionate, but ended up not being helpful but incendiary. It provided fodder for unscrupulous advertisers.”
Oz said he’s being more careful with his language, but as a “cheerleader for the audience” he plans to keep talking about the latest products.
“When they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look – and I do look -- everywhere, including at alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them,” he said.
McCaskill was adamant. “When you call a product a miracle, and it’s something you can buy, and it’s something that gives people false hope, I just don’t understand why you need to go there,” she said.
Now, more than ever, buyer, beware of hope in a jar.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.