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FTC cracks down on weight-loss products

Says fake studies, deceptive ads cheated public

WASHINGTON — Makers of the weight-loss additive Sensa will return more than $26 million to consumers to settle charges the company used deceptive advertising claiming 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 the Home Shopping Network. It sold a one-month supply for $59 and urged consumers to ‘‘sprinkle, eat, and lose weight.’’

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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.

Its settlement with Sensa is part of a crackdown on four companies peddling weight-loss products that include 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,” 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.

Regulators acknowledged 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 ads.

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

Sensa CEO Adam Goldenberg and Sensa’s 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 the powder enhanced the smell and taste of food, leading users to feel fuller and eat less.

The FTC said Sensa failed to disclose that customers who appeared in ads were paid $1,000 to $5,000 and got free trips to Los Angeles.

The company said it has agreed to remove the claims cited by the FTC from its ads.

‘‘The settlement involves no admission of wrongful conduct by the company and does not challenge the product’s safety,’’ Sensa said. It will continue marketing its products with new advertisements.

L’Occitane claimed its Almond Beautiful skin cream could help users ‘‘trim 1.3 inches in just 4 weeks.’’ It charged more than $44 for each bottle of the cream. L’Occitane will repay $450,000 to customers.

HCG Diet Direct marketed a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin; it has been falsely promoted as a weight-loss aid for decades. A $3.2 million judgment against the company was suspended because of its inability to pay.

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