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Europe

EU Seeks Ban on 'Misleading' Ads

The European Commission wants to make the media more honest by banning advertising with claims that can't be scientifically proven, putting an end to dubious "fat free" or "high fiber" labels.

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Consumer protection: looking for truth in advertising

If you were to believe everything advertisements tell you, supermarket shelves would be packed with products that keep you healthy, young, thin and happy. So far EU citizens have only been able to rely on common sense to tell them that these promises are often empty. But a new European Commission draft directive aims to give consumers more security by banning misleading ads.

European Union Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne introduced the draft on Wednesday. If approved, from 2005 onwards, ads with promising vague and unverifiable qualities like weight loss, improved concentration or boosting energy would be prohibited. But the directive must still be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers before it can be implemented.

"It's not an advertising ban at heart, but rather it's about information regarding nutrition and health," European Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder told Deutsche Welle.

The draft identifies 24 phrases like "fat-free," "light" and "high in fiber" that may only be used if they are backed up by scientific data. Advertisers who want to say a product is "low fat" will have to prove that it has less than three percent fat. "Sugar free" could only be used if a product had no more than 0.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams. Muesli would only be "high in fiber" if at least 6 percent was fiber.

Food manufacturers in the EU must currently list all ingredients on labels, but they are not required to reveal their products' nutritional value. Over the next three years the European Commission will determine what must or cannot be on a label. Manufacturers will then have to submit their products to the EU Health and Safety Authority for approval. For example, advertisers will most likely be allowed to maintain that a product with calcium is good for the bones. But the claim that herbal drinks improve concentration will probably not make the cut -- unless the manufacturer can show proof.

German consumer protection groups have welcomed the EU's plans. The draft will bring an end to years of disputes over clarity, the German association of consumer protection organizations announced.

Auntie EU

But advertisers are incensed by the proposal. The "governess-like EU" imposes its will on its citizens, the head of Germany's Federal Association for Consumer Protection, Volker Nickel, told Deutsche Welle. Nickel said the draft signaled a "return to the socialist planned economy."

The draft represents a threat to competition and freedom of expression and will also harm businesses, Nickel claimed. He estimated that advertising expenditures would drop significantly "if advertising must first go through the Brussels censor." Nickel said the regulations were "outrageous," especially since German law already punishes scientifically inaccurate statements with sentences of up to two years jail. "I would like to see that applied to politicians and bureaucrats," Nickel added.

European Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder refused to respond to Nickel's comments. The directive responded to consumers concerns, which was confirmed by the positive reactions to a "long overdue undertaking," she told Deutsche Welle.

Negative coverage of the planned directive had only surfaced in Germany and Austria, Gminder said. But she wouldn't explain exactly why the resistance came from Germany and Austria. She just said the reasons were philosophical rather than political, "which I have no answer to as an EU spokeswoman."

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