Abbott Laboratories has settled federal charges that it made false advertising claims when promoting its Ensure protein supplement to healthy, active adults.
In announcing the settlement, the Federal Trade Commission said Thursday that it should serve as a warning to other companies pitching similar fortified drinks. The product is among the many foods and cosmetics aimed at baby boomers hoping to preserve their youthful energy and looks.
The FTC said Abbott could not substantiate oft-repeated claims that doctors recommend Ensure for healthy adults in their 30s and 40s. The agency said Abbott falsely claimed that one serving of Ensure provides nutrients comparable to a multivitamin.
In a statement, Abbott denied wrongdoing and said it agreed to the settlement to avoid costly litigation.
Ensure's ads have previously come under fire from consumer groups. The Center for Science in the Public Interest skewered Abbott for the ads in 1995. On Thursday, Bruce Silverglade, an attorney for the center, declared Ensure "nothing more than infant formula for adults."
With annual sales of nearly $300 million, Ensure accounts for 80% of protein supplement sales, according to the FTC. Initially developed for the infirm or elderly, the product has made inroads among aging baby boomers, thanks to aggressive marketing.
Abbott spent $45.4 million to promote Ensure during the first nine months of 1996, according to the advertising tracking firm Competitive Media Reporting, nearly 70% more than it spent during the same period of 1995.
Ads for the canned drink, a fortified mixture of water, sugar, fat and protein, stress energy and health. In one TV commercial cited by the FTC, a father and adult daughter fish together and discuss how they both drink Ensure to help stay "healthy, active, be energetic."
In another ad, a woman married 15 years declares that she and her husband drink Ensure to "help make sure we stay active."
The FTC said the commercials went too far in implying that the drinks should be part of a regular diet.
Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's consumer protection bureau, said the products are useful as occasional meal replacements, or for elderly people who cannot chew or who need to maintain their weight.
"They went beyond that," Bernstein said. "They recommended it for use on a routine basis, almost as a substitute for a well-balanced diet."
Ensure isn't the only supplement company selling youthful vitality. A print advertisement for Boost, a drink from Mead Johnson, asked: "Horrified by what you did to your body in your 20s?" It promised that "your body will think [Boost] is rocket fuel."
In an ad for another drink, an energetic, graying couple drinking Mead Johnson's Sustacal in their car leave a twosome drinking Ensure in the dust. "Sustacal can't add years to your life," the announcer says. "But it might add life to your years."
Bernstein declined to comment when asked whether other brands are under scrutiny. But she said she hopes the settlement over Ensure will put the marketplace on notice.
"These are highly promoted products," she said. "We hope this sends a strong message as to what our standards are and that we will be looking carefully to see they are following these standards."
In settling the allegations, Abbott agreed not to make claims about professional endorsements or recommendations without proper substantiation. It also agreed not to misrepresent the amount of vitamins in Ensure.
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Here is how leading protein supplement brands stack up. Sales figures are for 52 weeks, ending Dec. 1, 1996, at supermarkets, mass merchants and drug stores, in millions:
Product Sales Ensure $161.6 Ensure Plus 123.8 Ensure Light 14.4 Boost 36.4 Sustacal 14.9 Sustacal Plus 5.3 Resource 5.5 Resource Plus 2.1
Source: Information Resources Inc.