When Shoe Companies Make Misleading Health Claims About Their Products

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Kevin A. Kirby, DPM

Since 2011, three major shoe manufacturers have been involved in class action suits that involve health claims they made about their shoes. In all three cases, the shoe companies were required to pay multi-million dollar settlements due to health claims they promoted about their shoes in their television, magazine and shoe store advertisements. The judges in these cases found that none of these three shoe manufactures could provide sufficient scientific research to support the health claims they prominently advertised for their shoes.

   However, many customers have complained about these legal proceedings since they felt these shoe companies should not be singled out and forced to pay for the unsubstantiated health claims they made for their shoes. In addition, many podiatrists watching these cases unfold over the past three years have wondered what their place is in these cases and what they should say to their patients or public about these cases regarding the health claims that these companies made about their shoes.

   In the first case, settled in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found a major shoe company to have “deceptively advertised toning shoes” by claiming that their shoes would “provide extra tone and strength to leg and buttock muscles.” The company was required to pay $25 million as part of its settlement agreement. David Vladeck, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, stated: “The FTC wants national advertisers to understand that they must exercise some responsibility and ensure that their claims for fitness gear are supported by sound science” (see http://tinyurl.com/qcdl69r ).

   In the second case, settled in 2012, the FTC announced that another major shoe company agreed to pay $40 million to settle charges that the company deceived consumers “by making unfounded claims” that its toning shoes “would help people lose weight, and strengthen and tone their buttocks, legs and abdominal muscles.” The FTC further stated that the “company even made claims about weight loss and cardiovascular health.” Mr. Vladeck again was quoted as saying “The FTC’s message for [the shoe company] and other national advertisers is to shape up your substantiation or tone down your claims” (see http://tinyurl.com/kdjrlp5 ).

   The last class action case, just settled in May 2014, was against a shoe manufacturer that agreed to settle a lawsuit for $3.75 million in which a plaintiff alleged that the shoe company made misleading claims about the health benefits of its shoes, which “are designed to mimic the experience of running barefoot.” The plaintiff further alleged that the shoe company “claimed that the shoes improve posture, reduce the risk of injury and strengthen muscles.” The shoe company denied any wrongdoing but agreed to settle the class action lawsuit to avoid the expense and uncertainty of a trial (see http://tinyurl.com/pwszmmv ).

   What are we, as health professionals who advise our patients and the lay public on a daily basis regarding shoes, to think about these three class action suits against shoe companies accused of making false health claims? Should we speak out publicly against all shoe companies that make false health claims? Should we stay silent and let our patients and the public use their own judgment as to whether shoe advertisements are true or not? What is our responsibility as foot-health medical professionals regarding shoe companies that make questionable health claims about the shoes they sell to our patients and the public?

   I believe that if podiatrists want to truly be considered the experts in foot-health care for the public, we must stand up and be counted as being the medical experts on shoes, shoe biomechanics and shoe health benefits. We need to be aware of the latest shoe health claims and latest shoe research. We must clearly state in lectures, interviews, the articles we write and in the advice we give to our patients that any health claims made by shoe companies must have the support of valid scientific research. Otherwise, by definition, these health claims are false, misleading and possibly illegal.

   In other words, it is our medical duty to be vocal against shoe fads and trends that may cause harm to our patients and the public. No matter what health claim games shoe companies want to play, we are the medical experts on foot health and we accordingly must always step up to the plate for our patients and the public. After all, when it comes to questions patients have on their shoe choices, we are the ones that they expect to protect them from harm and injury.

   Dr. Kirby is an Adjunct Associate Professor within the Department of Applied Biomechanics at the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. He is in private practice in Sacramento, Calif.

   Dr. McCord retired from practice in 2008 at the Centralia Medical Center in Centralia, Wash.

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