Government fraud fighters go after marketers of electronic exercise belts

Wednesday, May 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ You can't get washboard abs just by strapping an electronic exercise belt around your waist and pushing a button, the government says.

But since several companies have used just such claims to sell an estimated $100 million worth of the belts to millions of American consumers, the Federal Trade Commission is taking the companies to court.

The agency announced Wednesday it has filed three federal lawsuits, two in Las Vegas and one in San Diego, against the marketers of three ab belts _ the AB Energizer, Ab Tronic and Fast Abs.

``These electronic abs gadgets don't do a thing to turn a bulging beer belly into a sleek six-pack stomach,'' said FTC Chairman Timothy Muris. ``Unfortunately, there are no magic pills, potions or pulsators for losing weight and getting into shape. The only winning combination is diet and exercise.''

The belts have been sold primarily through heavily aired 30-minute informercials on national cable television stations; two of the belts also were advertised in shorter commercials and in print.

The infomercials feature photos of trim models, as well as testimony from fitness experts, doctors and users touting how well the belts work to produce sculpted midsections. ``Now you can get rock hard abs with no sweat,'' said one.

The belts cost between $40 and $120, earning the companies about $100 million so far, Muris said.

The advertisements claimed that the devices will cause well-defined abdominal muscles, bring about a loss of fat and inches, and are at least as good as, if not better than, conventional exercise, the FTC said.

The government suits, filed Tuesday, alleged that the claims were false, and thus the sales fraudulent.

Jeff Knowles, an attorney for Ventura, Calif.-based United Fitness of America and Parsippany, N.J.-based Tristar Products Inc., said their Fast Abs product was pulled from the market _ as were all ads _ about two months ago because it was not economically competitive.

He said the companies will discuss a settlement with the FTC, but do not believe they defrauded their customers. The devices came with instructions that included suggestions for exercise and healthy diet.

``You have to take things in complete context,'' Knowles said. ``We feel that it's a good product.''

The eight companies named in the other two suits could not immediately be reached for comment.

David Fiegal, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said there is no evidence such belts can change the shape or appearance of muscle.

The FDA has approved similar devices for sale in the United States, sold as Slender Tone and Compex Sport, but for an entirely different purpose. The electronic muscle stimulation the belts use can help professional athletes or physical therapy patients keep their muscles from tiring as quickly and allow longer exercise, Fiegal said.

The marketers of the belts targeted by the FTC have not applied for FDA approval, he said. His agency is in the process of alerting the companies that their products are not being legally sold. The FDA could eventually force the products to be pulled from the market.

The companies also often failed to provide timely refunds, despite having made ``money back guarantees'' to consumers, the FTC alleged.

The lawsuits seek refunds for consumers of the belts, and a halt to advertisements containing false claims.