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Watch What You Say, or You Could Become the "Biggest Loser"

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All has been quiet lately on the Jillian Michaels front since the third suit was filed against her in mid-February. I am patiently waiting for the outcome, but in the meantime, the suspense is killing me. Will her credibility be harmed in the long term, the short term or not at all? How many people will be joining the class? How are her weight loss and diet supplements selling now? Her products are still being sold and advertised everywhere I turn. One would think the sales would drop off dramatically.

In case you forgot or missed the details, the Diva-lebrity trainer has been slapped with three class action lawsuits in California.

Jillian Michaels and Utah-based ThinCare International, which manufactures and markets several diet and weight loss products Michaels endorses, are being sued under the California Unfair Claims Law, Business and Professions Code 17200, which prohibits "any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising..." That quote was from the first complaint. The third lawsuit claims that the diet pill Jillian Michaels endorses contains a "potentially lethal" ingredient, citrus aurantium. You may know it better as Bitter Orange, which became popular after the FDA banned ephedra. And yes, even Wikipedia cites it as potentially dangerous and ineffective.

What's surprising to me is that someone with the resources Michaels has would fall into this trap. The trap I mean is allegedly making potentially false claims and waving a red flag in front of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC may be a small, overburdened government agency, but they're damn serious about claims. I know people who have lost millions in lawsuits from the marketing of fitness and weight loss products on infomercials for making over the top claims. A couple of wrong words in advertising can be a costly mistake. There are lawyers who specialize in FTC compliance, making sure their clients use precisely the right words so as not to get sued.

The lawyer who filed the first suit, Melissa Harnett, basically chastises Michaels for selling out, saying, "Sadly Michaels decided to exploit her fame and goodwill... to promote a weight loss supplement [Jillian Michaels Maximum Strength Calorie Control™] that purportedly will cause weight loss, by itself without any additional effort on the part of the consumer..."

She further admonished Michaels for contradicting her usual hard nosed approach to weight loss, which requires diet, exercise and willpower, because the trainer dramatically changes her tune when it comes to this product. Allegedly all you have to do is, "take two capsules before main meals and you lose weight. That's it."

Sure enough, that is exactly what it says on the box. Right on the Jillian Michaels official website, you can see her sales pitch for the product. It says,

We all know if you want to lose weight, you need to reduce your caloric intake. It sounds simple, but the truth is, if it were easy, most of us wouldn't be overweight in the first place. This is where Jillian Michaels Maximum Strength Calorie Control™ comes in: it's a proprietary formula specifically developed to restrict your caloric intake automatically. In other words, when you take this compound before main meals, you eat less... but the best part is, you won't even know you are eating less. It's like an automatic diet. What could be easier!

Really? Sign me up! If I were desperate to lose weight, I'd probably be tempted by those words, especially if I were a regular viewer of the Biggest Loser, watching Michaels getting amazing results from obese people week after week. But as a health and fitness professional, I'd want to see a comprehensive double blind clinical trial before believing those pills work, as does the FTC. I'm not sure if I feel sorry for the plaintiffs for being so gullible, but I surely can't feel sorry for Michaels for not doing her due diligence.

As for how the cases will pan out, I will wait patiently. I suspect there will be little hoopla and that the parties will settle quietly out of court. Although Michaels asserts that she stands behind all of her products and that her reputation is of the utmost importance, if the suit goes to trial and Michaels loses in public, she will surely lose her high-profile gig on NBC and be deemed a fraud. With $5 million dollars being sought in damages, and an injunction to prohibit the sale of the product on the line, TV's toughest trainer could truly stand to be the "Biggest Loser" -- not only in monetary terms, but more importantly, in credibility.