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Groups Say Weight-Loss Centers Hold Back Information

May 29, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Some of the largest and most popular weight-loss centers withhold basic information from prospective clients, consumer groups said Wednesday in a complaint to the government.

Even when information is provided, it’s disclosed orally. That makes it difficult for consumers to evaluate programs and comparison-shop, the complaint to the Federal Trade Commission said.

The consumer coalition, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wants the FTC to require commercial weight-loss centers to provide written information about their services and staff available to anyone thinking about signing up to shed unwanted pounds. The disclosures would include a program’s cost, length, effectiveness and safety as well as the qualifications of staff.

Without such information, ``choosing a weight-loss center is pure guesswork,″ said Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Last year, 7.5 million people spent more than $1.7 billion at commercial weight-loss centers. The five largest are Jenny Craig, Nutri/System, Diet Center, Physicians Weight Loss Centers and Weight Watchers International.

Some 48 million people _ one-fourth of the adult U.S. population _ are currently dieting, spending more than $33 billion annually on weight-loss products and services, according to the consumer groups’ complaint.

At least one diet center _ Weight Watchers _ agreed with CSPI.

``We agree ... that there needs to be more standardized practices across the board,″ said Linda Carilli, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the Woodbury, N.Y.-based chain.

Registration and fees for the Weight Watchers program, based on weekly meetings, are fully disclosed, she said, and participants aren’t required to sign contracts or buy specially packaged foods.

A company statement said Jenny Craig, of Del Mar, Calif., is ``confident in the efficacy of its program″ and follows regulatory requirements regarding advertising and disclosure of information.

Jenny Craig added that the costs and the length of its program, staff credentials and health risks associated with too-quick weight loss also are disclosed to participants before they enroll.

Nutri/System did not immediately return a telephone call for comment.

Spokesmen for Diet Center and Physicians Weight Loss Centers, both of Akron, Ohio, said they hadn’t seen the complaint and refused comment.

CSPI said it sent a representative to a Jenny Craig, Diet Center, Physicians Weight Loss Centers and Nutri/System program in the Washington area. Information for Weight Watchers was obtained by phone.

The consumer group said information about the programs was ``completely unavailable″ or provided only upon request, according to the complaint.

Basic cost and program length were given verbally, except for Diet Center, which put program length in writing, the complaint said. Mandatory costs, such as for specially packaged foods required by the Jenny Craig and Nutri/System programs, were not disclosed, it said.

Staff credentials weren’t provided unless requested, and only Nutri/System disclosed the health risks of rapid weight loss.

Data on the effectiveness of the weight-loss programs is not regularly provided to clients and was not available upon request, the complaint said.

The FTC settled unsubstantiated advertising cases against Nutri/System, Diet Center and Physicians Weight Loss Centers in 1993, but Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers are fighting the charges.

Weight-Loss Centers also asked the agency for industry-wide standards that year, but the FTC rejected the request in favor of a case-by-case approach. The ruling is under appeal.

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