U.K. Woman Wants to Sue Weight Watchers

For anyone who's ever gained weight back after going on a diet, a woman who helped Princess Diana battle bulimia is looking for payback from one of the world's leading weight-loss programs.

U.K.-based psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue, is planning a lawsuit against Weight Watchers on behalf of what she says are thousands of women and men who have paid out many hundreds of British pounds to the company, only to end up fatter than before they started the program.

Orbach's main argument: diets simply don't work, and the dieting industry profits from the large number of people who come back to the program after they gain the weight back.

"I believe that it is the very 'problem' of recidivism that has made Weight Watchers its fortune," wrote Orbach in an editorial in London's Daily Mail last month. Orbach has claimed that nine out of 10 Weight Watchers graduates fail to keep off the pounds they've lost, a figure the company disputes.

Although McDonald's and other fast food chains have had suits filed against them in the past year by people blaming the restaurants for contributing to their weight problems, Orbach's suit would be the first to hold a weight-loss company responsible for clients' gaining the weight back. A spokeswoman from Weight Watchers says the company has not heard from Orbach or any lawyers representing her.

Question of Responsibility

In an interview, Orbach says she does not have a timetable for her proposed lawsuit, nor does she know whether or not she'll pursue it in the United States or Great Britain. But in bringing the action, she says she hopes to bring the issues surrounding weight loss and dieting out into the open.

"The kind of fever that's gripped Western culture about the size we're supposed to be inadvertently contributes to the obesity statistics," says Orbach. "Those are the kind of agendas that I want to open up."

Indeed, obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States alone, a trend that has disturbed experts. The U.S. surgeon general said in a report last December that obesity is associated with the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Americans each year and costs $117 billion in health-related costs. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that consumers spent around $35 billion on weight-loss products ranging from books and videos to drugs and diet shakes in 2000.

The FTC also estimates that about 61 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese and more than two-thirds of all Americans are trying to lose or keep off weight.

But dieting and legal experts say a lawsuit against a company that tries to help people lose weight through lifestyle changes for which the user is ultimately responsible, may not be the solution to eradicate the problem — or successful.

"It seems to me that this is kind of a case of common sense. When you stop Weight Watchers and go back to the way you were eating before, you'll gain the weight back," says Michael Scott, partner at law firm, Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, a Dallas-based firm that specializes in civil litigation.

Set Points and Slimming Down

Orbach's main argument is that people's metabolisms have a "set point," or a set rate of burning food, which slows down when people start dieting.

The problem occurs, she says, when dieters go back to their regular eating habits, because their metabolism set point stays at the slower rate, causing them to gain the weight back and enter what Orbach calls "a vicious cycle of weight gain and weight loss." She believes the solution lies not in diets but in re-educating our bodies and minds to eat only when we are hungry.

Weight Watchers spokeswoman Linda Carilli says that Orbach's theories "are at least 20 years old and have been retired for some time."

Dieting experts say that while most people have a weight range that they're likely to settle into during their lives, this range can be affected by a person's environment, diet and exercise.

"There's truth that the body weight happens to be regulated, but it changes as you change the diet and activity," says Thomas Wadden, PhD., director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Programs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

A Long Process for Some

Weight Watchers' Carilli acknowledges that people embarking on a weight-loss plan often are not successful the first time around, simply because like with any habit, they need to retrain themselves to eat in a healthy way and exercise, a process that can take time.

The company's brochures say its members report that they have maintained an average of 84 percent of their weight loss two years after completing the maintenance phase of the company's program. About half said they maintained 100 percent of their weight loss after two years.

Weight Watchers uses a points system, where every food is given a point value based on its calorie, fat and fiber content. Members choose their meals to stay within a daily points range, depending on their current weight. Physical activity is also assigned a points value, which can be swapped for additional food points. For support, members attend weekly meetings that cost an average of $12 each.

"We would agree that diets don't work," says Carilli. "We position ourselves as providing a lifestyle program."

Carilli denies Orbach's claims that the company is profiting from its clients' failures. In the most recent quarter ended Sept. 28, 2002, the company reported a 31 percent net revenue increase to $189.2 million, with an 18 percent increase in attendance at its meetings worldwide.

"We'd have to be duping a lot of people to be doing as well as we're doing right now," she says.

Broken Promises?

So can a process some people may need to try a few times be the basis for a lawsuit? Experts say if there are material, misleading promises in a company's advertising, a plaintiff might have a case.

"Let's assume you had a weight-loss or a stop-smoking program that talked about the wonderful benefits of losing weight… but didn't tell you that everything was temporary and in three months it would all come back. It would seem to me that that is a material fact," says John F. Banzhaf, professor of law George Washington University. Banzhaf has worked as an adviser to Caesar Barber, a Bronx man who announced last summer that he planned to sue four fast-food chains for contributing to his obesity.

But in recent years, the weight-loss industry has had to steer clear of making promises it can't keep, thanks to watchdogs at the Federal Trade Commission. As part of a settlement with the FTC in the 1990s, many weight-loss firms, including Weight Watchers, must add a disclosure in its materials that reads, "For many dieters, weight loss is temporary."

Still, Orbach is not convinced.

"Weight Watchers, by offering what it offers, is preying into the notion of failure," she says. "In fact, its profits depend on it."