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The waning years of '80s were not kind to the commercial diet industry.

Long allowed to romp freely through the marketplace, gathering billions of dollars as they went, operators of commercial diet programs found themselves out of favor with a large sector of the public and under investigation by Congress.The medical community wasn't being very nice, either. Doctors and scientists who once only scoffed at commercial diet programs became more critical as research revealed health risks associated with rapid weight loss.

Chilled by the baleful gaze of Congress, the $33 billion diet industry scrambled to modify its act - or at least its advertising. In the wake of public disenchantment, many programs fought to stay solvent.

Diet Center, one of Rexburg, Idaho's, largest employers, merged with General Nutrition in an effort to shave $4 million annually off its expenses, said Joleen Pearson, communications specialist for Diet Center.The merger sparked the layoff of 125 Rexburg employees when Diet Center closed its headquarters there and moved into General Nutrition's offices in Philadelphia.

Trim4Life stunned hundreds of its Utah clients with the unannounced closure of all Utah outlets in December. Physicians Weight Loss Center and other small Utah programs closed more quietly.

Such closures left many clients with slim wallets, plump figures and no recourse.

On behalf of Utah clients, the Better Business Bureau of Utah wrote the Trim4Life headquarters in California to find out if the company had taken out bankruptcy and when clients could get their money back.

The reply was not encouraging. "I am not aware of any present method by which consumers can receive a refund," Trim4Life attorney Ivan L. Kallick wrote. The company has not decided whether to take out bankruptcy, he said.

While many diet companies are troubled by the slump in the diet business, it's the fear of Congress that keeps their corporate brass awake at night.

Alarmed by Congress' investigation, diet companies stopped making improbable claims in their ads shortly after the investigation began.

In the new year's spate of ads, companies that once promised quick weight loss now stress slow, safe reduction.

A January article in Glamour magazine included an old Nutri/System ad that contained the testimonial of a woman who said she lost two dress sizes in three weeks. The article also ran an old Jenny Craig testimonial of a woman who claimed "I lost 95 pounds in just over six months" - at a brisk rate of nearly 16 pounds a month.

While Jenny Craig stands by that ad, (four pounds a week is a reasonable rate, a Jenny Craig spokesman said) Nutri/System backed away from theirs.

"That ad is not accurate," said Thym Smith, vice president of public affairs for Nutri/System. "It is three or four years old at least. Had that ad come before our quality assurance program, it would never have run," he said.

Nutri/System developed a quality assurance program three years ago to scrutinize ads run by its franchisees.

Nutri/System's new ad campaign gets away from the rate of weight loss altogether and talks about the sensibleness of its program. The old tagline on the Nutri/System ads was "We succeed where diets fail you." The new tagline: "There is a right way to lose weight."

Diet Center Inc., also revamped its ads, dropping the quick weight-loss angle and stressing instead the wisdom, health and balance of its program.

"We are not a program that claims `fast' and `quick.' Those words are not part of the way we market Diet Center," Pearson said. But the words "safe" and "effective" are used frequently by Diet Center these days.

All three diet programs mentioned in this story thus far confirmed to national media that they are also being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for claims made in their advertising.

Those companies that still use testimonials about how much weight someone lost in a certain period are advocating safer rates of weight loss. A recent Ultra Slimfast ad featured former model Christina Ferrare, who said she lost 24 pounds in three months using the powdered drink. Few would quibble with her conservative loss of eight pounds a month.

Although the advertising may have changed, the diets themselves have not. Nor should they, each company spokesman said. Each company believes its diet to be the finest on the market.

And so they told Congress. "When we asked these companies to testify, they all said the same thing, how some form of regulation is long overdue, how pleased they were to help - but of course their own program is the gold standard. Everyone else is no good," former congressional aide D. Ann Murphy told Glamour.

Two-thirds of the way through Congress' investigation, some sort of guidelines for the diet industry seem inevitable. Nutri/System and Diet Center say they are eager to see that happen.

"There should be standards in the industry," said Frank Strangis, Diet Center's vice president of marketing. "A lot of small, local diet companies make claims that hurt the rest of us."

"We called for industry standards back in 1987," Nutri/System's Smith said. "We couldn't get a peep out of the industry then, so we have decided to take a leadership role in proposing those standards."

Smith wasn't ready to discuss standards Nutri/System might propose but said such standards "would reassure consumers that weight-loss programs like ours are effective."

Diet Center joined Nutri/System in volunteering to help Congress draw up standards to regulate the industry.

"We are as fearful as anyone else about what happens to people who go on fad programs. If those programs were controlled by Congress, it would be to Diet Center's advantage."


(Additional information)

Complaints in BBB files

Better Business Bureau of Utah's files on some commercial diet programs in the area reveal:

- Trim4Life: Four complaints prior to the company's closure and one since closure. "They were all taken care of."

- Nutri/System: "The Better Business Bureau has processed numerous complaints regarding this company. The complaints allege failure to cancel contracts and failure to receive refunds. The company has been responsive to the complaints when presented them by the bureau."

- Jenny Craig: "The company has had a limited amount of complaints to which Jenny Craig has been responsive."

- Diet Center: No record of complaints.

- Weight Watchers: No record of complaints.

- Optifast: Program not listed in BBB files.