Evidence for claims in weight-loss ads is slimmer than you’ll be

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Posted 05 July 2021

Was Pinterest right to ban advertising for diet products on its platform?

Wendy Knowler TimesLive 04 July 2021

Pinterest has banned all weight loss ads on its platform, as part of its policy not to support body shaming advertising.

It will no longer allow ads containing testimonials about losing weight, references to body mass indexes, or those that “idealise or denigrate” certain body types.

The company is the first major tech platform to prohibit weight loss ads.

Apparently the US National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) advised Pinterest on the policy change.

“NEDA is encouraged by this necessary step in prioritising the mental health and wellbeing of Pinners, especially those affected by diet culture, body shaming and eating disorders,” said Elizabeth Thompson, interim CEO for the association, in the release.

“We are hopeful this global policy will encourage other organisations and companies to reflect on potentially harmful ad messages and to establish their own working policies that will create meaningful change.”

Pinterest says it will still allow ads promoting “healthy lifestyles and habits or fitness services and products” as long as they’re not focused on weight loss.

Not everyone is impressed.

Responding to the news on Twitter, Themba M said: “Diabetes doesn’t care about body positivity. Fat = unhealthy, that’s the truth. Kids as young as 12 now suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure.”

It’s also true that the type of products Pinterest has imposed an advertising ban on aren’t the solution.

“There is no effective over-the-counter weight loss product – they are essentially all scams,” says Harris Steinman, a Cape-based medical doctor who has spent decades lodging complaints of misleading advertising against such products with the Advertising Regulatory Body (ARB) – previously the Advertising Standards Authority.

He has analysed the disclosed ingredients of scores of such products and come to the conclusion that the claims can’t possibly be substantiated.

“In my experience, users consider themselves to be a failure when the product is ineffective.

“People struggling with weight carry major additional psychological burdens, including body shaming, and don’t deserve to feel worse because of these products,” he said.

I so wish I could name the person and the product in the story he shared with me on hearing the Pinterest news, but it’s a goody nevertheless.

“Years ago, I asked a deputy minister of health to act against these products.

“She told me that she had tried (a widely advertised and sold slimming product), but it didn’t work, so she carried on using it for another month. Still nothing.

“Six months later she tried it again – same lack of result, so she concluded her physiology that was the problem, not the product.

“It was advertised on TV, she said, so it must be effective. It was an epiphany for me.”

Speaking of TV adverts, the most recent slimming product claims Steinman complained to the ARB about were considered by the board’s directorate on May 13.

Technically it was the consideration of “new substantiation” submitted by Newgroup about its Herbex Ultraslim product.

Back in March, when Steinman first lodged his complaint, he said the product’s claims couldn’t be substantiated, as neither the relevant ingredients nor the product as a whole could deliver on its promises.

The company’s attorneys issued a fierce response, accusing the ARB of being a “self-appointed regulator that purported to exercise wide-ranging powers that have enormous adverse effect on third parties while infringing on their constitutional rights”. They argued that the ARB was applying “a scientific standard of proof to complementary medicines” and that it was imposing “an impossible standard by requiring unequivocal proof of efficacy”.

They made the point that the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) allowed the product to be sold as a complementary medicine, which meant the ARB had no say in the matter, and could not unilaterally impose its rules on such products.

The May ruling, after consideration of a submission by Newgroup’s expert, a registered homeopath and “phytotherapy practitioner”, the directorate said the claims made by the product were misleading in that consumers are not presented with the complete picture, telling them that the herbal product is “purported to cause weight loss in healthy (non-obese) people when used in conjunction with whatever constitutes a ‘slimming regime’.

“They are merely presented with a product and told that, if they consume this product, it will … increase their metabolism, burn calories and fat, regulate blood sugar levels, improve digestion and result in weight loss.

“This is incongruent with the evidence and (the homeopath’s) opinion,” the directorate said.

“This context needs to be communicated wherever efficacy and weight loss claims are made.”

In Herbex Ultraslim’s case, the claims that may be substantiated “within the context of a herbal paradigm” are: “Balances blood sugar”; “preventing belly fat”; “aid digestion to improve gut health”; “increases metabolism to burn fat faster”; and “24-hour weight loss”.

But in future the context – that product alone is not effective – must be clearly stated.

The ARB ruled that Herbex may not use the following claims:

“Herbex Ultraslim a weight-loss evolution”; “SA’s number 1 slimming brand”; “25 years refining the science of weight loss”; and “With triple the action”.

Do those who desperately want to lose weight get what the words: “only effective when used along with a slimming regime” mean?

Seems many do not. The lure of a quick fix is incredibly seductive.

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