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New Balance sued over toning-shoe ads

Customer calls promise of health benefits deceptive

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / January 5, 2011

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Boston sneaker maker New Balance is facing accusations in a lawsuit that it deceived customers by claiming its popular toning shoes create more sculpted legs than traditional walking sneakers.

The complaint, filed Monday in US District Court in Boston, is seeking class-action status and damages in excess of $5 million on behalf of a California woman, Bistra Pashamova, and other people who have allegedly been harmed by New Balance.

“No one can expect those benefits,’’ said Tina Wolfson, Pashamova’s lawyer. “The shoes just don’t provide what they claim they do.’’

Kristen Sullivan, a New Balance spokeswoman, said:

“As the lawsuit has yet to be served, New Balance has not reviewed the claims and, therefore, cannot comment on its specifics. However, we stand firmly behind the quality and performance of our products, as we have for more than 100 years.’’

New Balance, which recently launched a multimillion-dollar campaign for toning shoes, is one of several major sneaker companies that are facing class-action lawsuits from consumers. (Wolfson is representing another California resident in a case against the Canton sneaker company Reebok.) Toning shoes are designed with an unstable sole so leg muscles have to work harder to maintain balance during everyday activities. They are one of the fastest-growing segments in the footwear industry; sales were expected to soar last year to roughly $1.5 billion.

New Balance has promoted its toning shoes with claims that they increase muscle activation by at least 27 percent and increase calorie burn by up to 10 percent with each step, using either a rounded or flexible spring sole.

But a study last summer by the nonprofit American Council on Exercise found that toning shoes failed to live up to claims made by several manufacturers. Reports of injuries have also raised concerns that the shoes, which cost roughly $100 a pair, could do more harm than good.

Pashamova alleges that New Balance’s promises of health benefits are “nothing more than deceptive marketing tools’’ and cites as evidence the study from the American Council on Exercise, which measured heart rate, kilocalories burned, oxygen consumption, and muscle activity in users wearing toning shoes and regular athletic sneakers.

The report concluded there was “no statistically significant increases in either exercise response or muscle activation’’ as a result of wearing toning sneakers.

New Balance spokeswoman Amy Dow, in an interview with the Globe last summer, defended the company’s shoes.

“Having tested our products with hundreds of consumers in the lab and field combined, we are confident that increased muscle activation occurs when wearing our toning footwear,’’ Dow said.

Reebok, which was also mentioned in the study and is the subject of a similar lawsuit involving its EasyTone shoes, said the complaint is unfounded.

“The company will vigorously defend both the product and technology,’’ Daniel Sarro, a Reebok spokesman, said in a statement.

John Horan, publisher of the trade publication Sporting Goods Intelligence, said he could not recall another footwear product “that has quite stirred up this much controversy with all these class-action lawsuits.’’

From the start, toning shoes have caused a splash by focusing more on health benefits, Horan said, rather than on the typical performance or product features associated with sneaker marketing.

“I’m sure they have documentation for these claims,’’ he said. “I don’t think sneaker makers pulled the numbers out of air. But did they overpromise? The courts will have to decide. A lot of lawyers are putting up their own nickels and must feel they have some legitimate claims.’’

In addition to asking for monetary damages, Pashamova is seeking to “halt the dissemination of this false and misleading advertising message, correct the false and misleading perception New Balance has created in the minds of consumers, and to obtain redress for those who have purchased any New Balance toning shoes.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.