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Americans Fall Prey to Weight-Loss Supplement 'Hype'

Many mistakenly believe these products are tested and safe, survey finds

American adults think weight-loss supplements are safer and more effective than they actually are, researchers report in a new national survey.

More than 60 percent of the 1,444 telephone respondents, all of whom had made significant efforts to lose weight, mistakenly said that such supplements have been tested and are proven to be safe (65 percent) and effective (63 percent).

Over half (54 percent) wrongly stated that such supplements are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"FDA-approved drugs for weight loss have gone through years of testing with thousands of patients to prove that they are safe and effective. Supplements have not," said Thomas Wadden, president of North American Association for the Study of Obesity-The Obesity Society. "And this survey sounds the alarm that most Americans have the wrong idea about the safety and efficacy of these supplements."

There are currently no over-the-counter drugs for weight loss approved by the FDA.

The survey, conducted by the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research & Analysis (CSRA), was presented this week at the Obesity Society's annual meeting, in Boston.

The poll was funded by drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, which makes the prescription weight loss drug orlistat, brand named Xenical. Earlier this year, GlaxoSmithKline received conditional FDA approval for an over-the-counter version of the drug, to be sold as Alli.

Other significant findings of the survey include:

  • 34 percent of Americans who have tried to lose weight have used dietary supplements in one or more attempts, double the number who have used FDA-approved prescription medications.
  • Supplements are used by a higher proportion of blacks (49 percent) and Hispanics (42 percent) than whites (31 percent)
  • Only 30 percent of respondents said that they would speak to a physician about losing weight, even though 87 percent of them have a primary-care physician and 92 percent see their doctor at least once a year.

"The survey shows many Americans want to and will try to lose weight without a doctor's help and without a prescription medication," said investigator Saul Shiffman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. "To maximize their success, overweight Americans need to be informed about products that have been proven effective, and to use effective products and methods, to increase the effectiveness of Americans' dieting efforts, and improve their health and well-being."

On the same day and at the same meeting, leaders in the obesity field announced a national initiative to attack misleading advertising of weight loss diet supplements, publishing a White Paper call-to-action.

Richard Cleland, assistant director of the U.S. Federal Trade Commissions Division of Advertising Practices said, "This 'White Paper' announcement is a very important step in addressing the obesity epidemic, because what we need, and have been sorely lacking, in a multi-pronged approach to weight-loss fraud in the United States. The weight-loss fraud battle cannot be won by law enforcement alone. Consumers need to learn and to respond."

"We stand for help not hype in the face of the global epidemic of obesity," said MRC Greenwood, a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California at Davis and member of the newly launched Reality Initiative Council.

The national initiative calls for:

  • Health-care professionals to teach patients about realistic weight loss goals and to discourage the use of untested and unproven diet products.
  • Enforcement by governmental regulators of existing laws and regulations pertaining to products making unsubstantiated weight-loss claims.
  • Communication by the media of potential consequences of use of unverified weight loss products.

"We choose to approach the obesity epidemic by first attacking something specific, the hype of weight-loss products that creates a climate of failure," said Greenwood. "And we believe that by keeping the effort closely targeted and working closely with researchers, clinicians and the media, we can produce concrete results and begin to save lives."



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