Watch out for internet diet scams

I have long understood and also sympathised with people who are overweight or obese who are prepared to try absolutely anything to lose weight. I can also understand that such desperate dieters will clutch at any straw, believe any claim no matter how outrageous, swallow any horrid mixture and spend bags of money on spurious slimming pills, diets and machines/treatments.

However what I cannot tolerate and what makes me so angry that I see red is the people and companies that dupe hundreds and thousands of people every day in every way all over the world with fraudulent advertising about slimming products.

Diet deceit

Last week the Pretoria News (2013) featured an article first published in Daily Mail that reported on an internet diet scam involving the so-called "Raspberry Ketone Diet".

According to the article, this scam uses "fake endorsements" from a wide range of celebrities including Adele, Victoria Beckham and UK TV presenter Lorraine Kelly to dupe vulnerable people, but particularly women, into spending large amounts of money on these diet products based on the supposed endorsements of famous people.

A quick Google with "Raspberry Ketone Diet in South Africa" reveals a website that uses Dr Oz as the bait together with rather lurid text and over-the-top promises about weight loss which will be induced if the reader purchases the product(s).

As I looked at this marketing exercise, I wondered if Dr Oz has sanctioned the use of his name and is even aware of the fact that his fame is being used in conjunction with a slimming product at the tip of Africa. He did by all reports, actually mention some of the ingredients on his TV show, so that probably makes the publication of his pronouncements on slimming product websites legitimate. 

Money traps

The Pretoria News (2013) article also stated that customers who fell for the UK internet scam got trapped in £80-a-month (R1 230) contracts which they found very difficult to extricate themselves from.

The SA website just requests proof of payment by electronic transfer prior to delivering the products , but the amounts in question are hefty - R735 for one "Liquid Ketone Bottle". And how many eager buyers will read the sobering "small print" at the bottom of the page?

The latter states: "Statements made on this website are not meant to replace advice received by a qualified health professional. Statements should not be taken as medical advice or diagnosis as they have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. There are no guarantees that an individual will lose weight using this product. Weight loss depends on various factors and the results of this may vary from person to person."

So the sellers have covered their backs and the onus is on you, the purchaser - if you don’t lose weight, well then you have spent money in vain, but you were warned that the drops may not work and that they have not been evaluated by the FDA in America (or any other health organisation).

Legal action
Thankfully the British Advertising Standards Agency has banned a number of these internet ads, including one claiming that the singer Adele had lost 32kg in 4 weeks "with no special diet or intense exercise". The same ad also stated that the product in question boosted metabolism and thus increased weight loss by 800%.

Faked pictures of the singer who performed the winning Skyfall song at the Oscars this year, supposedly showed Adele before and after "dropping four dress sizes".

The Duchess of Cambridge has also had her images "adjusted" on the website of SlimTonePlus that promoted the "Raspberry Ketone Diet" in the UK and claimed that Kate Middleton had lost 7kg in one week by using their product.
What about South Africa?

In this country we are not immune to deceitful advertising on billboards, the printed media, TV or the internet when it comes to promoting these fly-by-night slimming products.

We also have an Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA) and some champions of truth and scientific integrity, such as Dr Harris Steinman, expose one fraudulent and misleading advertising claim relating to slimming products after another to the ASA. If you are interested in some of the latest rulings against popular over-the-counter slimming products of every kind, visit the CAMcheck website.

The great hoaxers

Alas, rulings by the various ASAs of countries such as South Africa and the UK do not seem to deter the diet product scamsters one bit.

Even if the company in question actually shuts down the website or withdraws the ad, or stops a TV exposure of their product, they are masters at escaping prosecution or losing sales.

All these charlatans do, is to change the name of their products, do a few adjustments to their websites, billboards and ads, and in a trice they are up and running again with "Slim Bullet" or "Melt-Away" or whatever name their ad agency has come up with. 

The products will be the same, the packaging may even be the same, but the label and the name will have changed and then the guardians of our health such as Dr Steinman will have to battle once more to get the next fake slimming product condemned. And so it goes on and on.

Are there solutions?

The situation at present is dire, both in South Africa and in other countries such as the UK and USA. Like the "Snake oil salesmen" of the Old Wild West, unprincipled money makers will continue to dupe and scam the public with bogus slimming claims, ads, and above all, products, and it is the public who will pay.

They pay in hard-earned money, negative physical side-effects, deranged metabolism and loss of natural function of the liver, bowels and kidneys. They also pay in destructive psychological after- effects such as loss of confidence, self-loathing and depression - and all this while the quacks laugh all the way to the bank.
Until the regulatory authorities of countries such as South Africa take steps to control the over-the-counter (OTC) slimming pills and product industry and make laws that prohibit the sale and advertising of such products, those of us who are concerned about the health of our patients and the integrity of our professions of dietetics, medicine, and pharmacy will continue like Don Quixote to tilt against windmills.

A possible solution

While the regulatory authorities wrangle about which department is responsible for controlling such fraudulent OTC products and their accompanying ads, you the public can actually stop this exploitation and deceit in its tracks by refusing to buy any slimming product that has not been tested rigorously in an accredited university or laboratory.

Let’s have an Anti-Diet Deceit Revolution and stand up against exploitation and deceit when it comes to losing weight. If we don’t buy their products, the charlatans will have to close shop.

(References: Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASA); Pretoria News (2013): Fat claims about slimming are fake, published on 27 June 2013, p. 29. Source - Daily Mail)

- (Photo of woman with diet pills from Shutterstock)

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