The "Milk Mustache" Ads Are All Wet

PCRM Takes It to the Federal Trade Commission

The "Milk Mustache" Ads Are All WetPCRM Takes It to the Federal Trade CommissionThe "milk mustache" ads' health claims may violate federal advertising guidelines, according to a PCRM petition filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in April. The ad campaign has tried to seduce consumers with promises of strong bones, lower blood pressure, and better sports performance. But, says PCRM's petition, the ads have taken a long walk off a short scientific pier.

The FTC regulates claims in advertising, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates claims on food packages. The two agencies try to stay in sync, allowing only certain health claims. For example, products low in fat and cholesterol may claim a role in reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer, and foods rich in folic acid may help prevent neural tube defects.

The FDA permits advertisers to claim that calcium-rich foods cut the risk of osteoporosis. However, the claim can be made only for Asian and Caucasian females in their bone-building years, since African Americans and males in general have a much lower risk of osteoporosis and there is no evidence that adding extra calcium—from milk or anything else—is helpful for these groups. Indeed, nearly all studies that have examined calcium intake have specifically excluded African Americans due to differences in bone density. Within the FDA's review of literature on calcium and osteoporosis, all subjects in five of seven cited studies were Caucasian. In the two remaining studies, one included 80 women of European ancestry and only 1 from India, while the other included 295 women with only 9 subjects identified as not Caucasian.

Data in older women show that milk-drinkers have as many (or possibly even more) fractures as women who avoid milk. Nonetheless, milk mustache ads have suggested that milk has bone-protecting benefits for African Americans, males, and older women. 

African-American model Tyra Banks—bikini, mustache, and all—says, "Stop drooling and listen. One in five victims of osteoporosis is male. Don't worry. Calcium can help prevent it. And ice cold, lowfat milk is a great source of calcium….

"African-American film director Spike Lee appeared in an ad promoting milk's supposed bone-building properties, saying, "[Y]our bones are still growing until you're 35." Joining Spike Lee in "violating" the "gender rule," Conan O'Brien appeared in an ad saying, "Big guys need the calcium as much as kids do." Celebrities are typically paid $25,000 for appearing in the ads. Of course, they're not responsible for ad content. Copywriters working for the dairy industry put in the controversial claims. 

In laying out guidelines for health claims, the FDA ruled that "to ensure calcium and osteoporosis claims will not mislead those individuals within the population for whom relatively higher calcium intake over lifetime offers no apparent benefit to their bone health, FDA proposed that subpopulations clearly at risk be identified...." These subpopulations did not include males at any age, any racial group other than Asians or Caucasians, or women older than their bone-building years. 

Other milk mustache ads have been even more brazen. An ad featuring Larry King suggested that milk could lower the risk of high blood pressure, a claim specifically rejected by the FDA and not entirely supported by scientific evidence.

A cup of whole milk also contains 5 grams of saturated fat, a level that is high enough to disqualify it from any health claims at all, according to federal rules. While only low-fat versions are permitted to make any health claims, many ads failed to differentiate amongst the different types of milk.

According to the FDA, "[C]ertain information is needed in the health claim in order for it to be truthful and not misleading to segments of the population that are not at high risk of developing osteoporosis or for whom no link between calcium and osteoporosis has been established."

If PCRM's complaint is successful, the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board will have to withdraw or change the ads.

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