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Feds crack down on four companies that made bogus weight-loss aids

WASHINGTON — Makers of a weight-loss additive called Sensa will return more than $26 million to consumers to settle federal charges that the company used deceptive advertising claiming that consumers could lose weight by simply sprinkling the powder on their food.

Sensa Products LLC promoted the powder through major retailers like Costco and GNC and with infomercials on St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network and other television networks. The company sold a one-month supply of Sensa for $59 and urged consumers to "sprinkle, eat and lose weight."

But Federal Trade Commission officials said Tuesday that the company used bogus clinical studies and paid endorsements to rack up more than $364 million in sales between 2008 and 2012.

The government's settlement with California-based Sensa is part of a broader crackdown on four companies peddling weight-loss products including food additives, skin creams and dietary supplements.

"The chances of being successful just by sprinkling something on your food, rubbing cream on your thighs or using a supplement are slim to none — the science just isn't there," said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's consumer protection office.

The FTC will also collect $7.3 million from LeanSpa, a company that promotes acai berry and "colon cleanse" weight-loss supplements through fake news websites. Also swept up in Tuesday's action are skin cream maker L'Occitane and HCG Diet Direct, which sells unproven hormones for weight loss. The companies will together return about $34 million to consumers to settle the federal charges.

Rich said the weight-loss products targeted by FTC both waste consumers' money and prevent them from seeking out legitimate treatments.

Regulators acknowledged that they were able to collect only a fraction of what the public paid for the products in recent years. In the case of Sensa, FTC officials said much of the revenue was quickly spent on advertising, including infomercials.

"It's not uncommon for us to see that much of the money that has come in from consumers has been spent and is not available for refund," said Mary Engle, an associate director in FTC's division of advertising practices.

The total judgment against Sensa was actually $46.5 million, but $20 million was suspended because of the company's inability to pay, according to the FTC.

Under the terms of the FTC order, Sensa CEO Adam Goldenberg and Sensa creator Dr. Alan Hirsch are barred from making weight-loss claims for any future products unless they are supported by two rigorous clinical trials. According to the FTC complaint, Hirsch conducted two misleading studies and wrote a book used to sell Sensa. The company claimed that the powder enhanced the smell and taste of food, leading users to feel fuller and eat less.

The FTC also said that Sensa failed to disclose that some customers who appeared in company ads were paid $1,000 to $5,000 and received complimentary trips to Los Angeles.

The company said in a statement that it has agreed to remove the claims cited by the FTC from its advertising.

"The settlement involves no admission of wrongful conduct by the company and does not challenge the product's safety," Sensa said, adding that it will continue marketing its products with new advertisements.

Online and in-store beauty product seller L'Occitane claimed its Almond Beautiful skin cream could help users "trim 1.3 inches in just 4 weeks." The international company charged more than $44 for each bottle of the cream. Under the FTC settlement, L'Occitane will repay $450,000 to customers and is prohibited from making such claims in the future without proper clinical studies.

Arizona-based HCG Diet Direct marketed liquid drops of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, which is produced by the human placenta. The hormone has been falsely promoted as a weight-loss aid for decades, despite a lack of evidence supporting that use. The government's $3.2 million judgment against the company was suspended because of HCG's inability to pay.

Settlement terms

Here's a look at the companies involved in the FTC settlement and the terms:

Sensa: Claimed its powder-based food additive could help customers lose weight without diet or exercise. FTC said the company's print, radio, television and online ads claimed the powder enhanced the flavor of food, leading users to eat less. The company will pay $26.5 million to resolve FTC charges that its marketing claims were not supported by scientific evidence.

L'Occitane: Claimed its Almond Beautiful Shape and Almond Shaping Delight creams could help slim waistlines and fight cellulite. Ads claimed both products would produce a "slimmer, firmer" figure. The Luxembourg-based firm will pay $450,000 under the FTC settlement.

LeanSpa: Used fake news websites to promote its acai berry and "colon cleanse" weight-loss products. The fake websites used online addresses designed to resemble legitimate news sites. LeanSpa has agreed to surrender assets worth an estimated $7.3 million, according to the FTC.

HCG Diet Direct: Marketed liquid drops of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, which is produced by the human placenta and found in the urine of pregnant women. The company advertised the products on YouTube and via its website, charging $200 for a 40-day supply of HCG Diet Direct Drops. The government's $3.2 million fine against the company was suspended because HCG cannot pay the amount.

Feds crack down on four companies that made bogus weight-loss aids 01/07/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 7, 2014 8:25pm]
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