Did diet drug live up to the hype?

January 9, 2008 4:23:59 PM PST
Touted as the nation's first Food and Drug Administration-approved nonprescription weight loss drug and backed by a $150 million ad campaign, Alli hit pharmacy shelves with great fanfare seven months ago.Sales initially skyrocketed retailers sold 2 million Alli starter kits within the first four months. During that time the total sales were $217 million for GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of the purported weight loss wonder, which it claimed worked by blocking a quarter of all fat consumed.

Some thought the weight loss pill would revolutionize the diet industry and the country's health. Months later, though, some peole are questioning whether Alli lived up to all the hype.

"Looking at this from [GlaxoSmithKline's] standpoint, I think they have a very effective business model. Do I think this will make an impact on the nation's health? The answer is no," said Mitchell Roslin of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Walgreens, one of the nation's biggest pharmacy chains, said sales of the drug have slowed. GlaxoSmithKline, however, said the drug continues to surpass sales expectations and is helping people meet their long-term weight loss goals.

However, not all Alli consumers have been satisfied with the drug.

Like many Americans, Stefanie Henderson battled her weight and thought she had found a solution to her lifelong struggle when Alli became available.

"I'm 100 pounds overweight. It's emotionally draining. I cry constantly. At 24 years old I weigh 240 pounds," she said.

Henderson was among the millions who raced to a pharmacy to get their hands on what was promoted as diet gold.

"I was in line at the front door of Wal-Mart waiting for Wal-Mart to open when Alli was introduced," Henderson said.

The drug seemed like a magic remedy to Henderson at first, because she lost 10 pounds quickly. But her success was limited. After four weeks, Henderson said her weight loss plateaued and she began experiencing unpleasant side effects, which landed her in the emergency room twice.

"The side effects put me into embarrassing situations," Henderson said. "I couldn't control my bowels. I was running to the bathroom, leaving meetings and literally being stuck."

Henderson stopped using Alli after six weeks and said that within three months the majority of her Alli support group on MySpace also had given up on the drug.

"People took it and had the same problems I did," Henderson said. "It wasn't worth the expense and the trouble and the embarrassment."

The company said controlling the amount of fat in the diet limits side effects, which it said can include loose stools and an oily discharge.

"If you abuse the drug if you abuse the fat intake that you're eating you're going to see a treatment effect," said GlaxoSmithKline dietician Rebecca Reeves.

Henderson said she didn't abuse the drug and followed its directions. Since giving up Alli, she has decided to choose a regimen including no late-night snacks and going to the gym three to four times a week to help her drop her unwanted weight.

One expert said sticking with any diet or weight loss drug can be difficult.

"The typical pattern for people on weight loss drugs is to go into it with a lot of enthusiasm. Many people don't lose as much as they'd like and they get discouraged and go off the drug," said Kelly Brownwell of the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

One Alli user said she was pleased with her results. Jennifer Erickson said her active lifestyle in Colorado wasn't enough to spur the weight loss she wanted. When she combined working out, eating right and taking Alli, the drug helped her lose 40 pounds since April.

"It was so empowering that Alli was a tool I used, but it was all me, all my sweat in my workouts, all my good choices and I just used Alli to help me make those good choices," Erickson said.