FTC Judge Rules Ads Claiming Diet Supplement Reduced Cancer Risks Were False

August 27, 2006

Upholds FTC Charges Against General Nutrition Inc.

FTC News Release
March 3, 1986

General Nutrition Inc.’s advertisements claiming that its dietary supplement “Healthy Greens” reduced the chances of contracting cancer were deliberately false, misleading and deceptive, a Federal Trade Commission administrative law judge has ruled. The judge issued an order prohibiting the company from making “false and unsubstantiated advertising claims in the future for any product marketed for its ability to prevent or reduce the risk of any disease in humans.”

Judge Montgomery K. Hyun’s ruling upholds a March 1984 FTC complaint charging that General Nutrition’s ads for Healthy Greens were deceptive. Healthy Greens are pills containing dehydrated vegetables and some vitamins and minerals. General Nutrition is a major seller of vitamins and food supplement products and had 1983 sales of more than $350 million. The company sold Healthy Greens through a subsidiary that operates about 1100 retail health food and vitamin stores nationwide.

According to Judge Hyun, General Nutrition’s use of false, misleading and deceptive claims could have misled the public into buying Healthy Greens. He concluded that the company’s actions were unfair and deceptive and violated the FTC Act. The order the judge issued prohibits the company from:

  • claiming that the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council or other research group found that use of Healthy Greens or other similar products reduces the risk of cancer in humans, unless the claim is true;
  • misrepresenting the purpose or conclusions of any scientific study with respect to any product’s ability to cure, prevent or reduce the risk of any disease in humans; or
  • making any claims about a supplement’s ability to reduce the risk of any disease unless it has, at the time the claim is made, competent and reliable scientific or medical evidence including at least one well-controlled human clinical trial which supports such a claim.

According to Judge Hyun, the order “is intended to ensure that future advertising claims will not mislead consumers into believing that a particular product attribute enjoys any greater support or authority within the scientific community than it enjoys in fact.”

General Nutrition based some of its ad claims about Healthy Greens’ ability to reduce the incidence of cancer on a 1982 National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council report, titled “Diet, Nutrition and Cancer.” However, Judge Hyun concluded that the report did not support General Nutrition’s claims and that those claims were therefore false. According to the judge, the report recommended that people include in their diet vegetables, fruits and whole grain cereal products, which have been shown to be associated with a lower cancer risk.

But, the judge wrote, the report “specifically states that its recommendations apply only to foods and not to nutrients or supple ments.” Finally, he concluded, General Nutrition “knew that the use of Healthy Greens tablets was not supported by the report or by the other prior substantiation documents in its possession.”

According to the FTC complaint, one ad for Healthy Greens claims: “By taking Healthy Greens you may reduce your chances of getting cancer.” Another states, “And judging from the NRC study for the National Cancer Institute [Healthy Greens is] just possibly your best hedge against cancer.”

According to Judge Hyun, General Nutrition represented in its ads, through references to the National Research Council report and to other scientific research, that it possessed evidence generally accepted by the scientific community as proving its claims. However, he concluded, nowhere does the report mention dehydrated vegetables as providing any benefits against cancer in humans. In addition, he wrote, the company’s “so-called substantiation material” that relates to other scientific research does not constitute competent and reliable scientific evidence.

In addition, General Nutrition claimed that vitamin E, which Healthy Greens contains, plays an important role in reducing the risk of cancer. In fact, according to Judge Hyun, “research has not demonstrated that vitamin E or any other nutrient plays any role in reducing the risk of cancer in humans, much less an important role.” Therefore, he concluded, those claims were false.

Judge Hyun concluded that consumer injury from General Nutrition’s ads for Healthy Greens was significant. He found that the principal injury was the economic harm to the consumer resulting from repeated purchase of an ineffective product. However, according to Judge Hyun, there were also health risks to consumers who took Healthy Greens. Those who took the tablets instead of including whole vegetables in their diet, as the National Research Council recommended, may have lost the benefits to be derived from following the dietary recommendations. He also found that consumers faced health risks because the diet supplement had some potential to cause toxicity or overdosing of some vitamins.

The judge concluded that General Nutrition’s violations were deliberate. He said that the company claimed its product was care fully developed and supported by scientifically-acceptable evidence when it was not. In fact, according to Judge Hyun, General Nutrition “allocated scant efforts to develop Healthy Greens,” merely copying another company’s product and doing “next to nothing” to determine its effectiveness.

In its 1983 FTC policy statement regarding advertising substantiation, the Commission said that advertisers must possess and rely upon a reasonable basis for its claims. Judge Hyun concluded that General Nutrition had not substantiated its claims for Healthy Greens and therefore did not possess a reasonable basis for them.

Finally, according to the judge, “There is also reason to conclude that General Nutrition’s unconscionable, false and misleading advertising found in this case is not an isolated incident but in fact is a part of a continuing pattern.” He pointed out that the record contains 14 consent agreements the company entered into with the U.S. Postal Service and one with California to settle charges of false advertising for food supplements.

General Nutrition, which is based in Pittsburgh, no longer markets Healthy Greens. The company sold about 24,000 bottles at prices ranging from $8.99 to $12.99.

Related Documents
  • FTC Docket No. D-9175. Decision, 111 FTC 387.
Related News Release

This page was posted on August 27, 2006.