Originally created 02/13/98

Anti-obesity drug hitting market



NEW YORK -- The diet drug Meridia hits pharmacy shelves this week as Knoll Pharmaceutical Co. launches what could become the next diet craze after the last one ended in a drug recall.

Meridia, the drug so anxiously awaited that dieters honored it with dozens of Internet sites before it was even approved, is expected to be in most drug stores by mid-March, Knoll said Thursday.

Meridia was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in November. It is the first prescription anti-obesity drug to hit the market since American Home Products Corp. recalled Redux and fenfluramine -- half of the popular "fen-phen" diet cocktail. The FDA requested the recall after linking the drugs with potentially fatal heart valve damage.

With one in three Americans overweight, the potential market is enormous. Knoll, a unit of Germany's BASF AG, expects the drug's global sales to peak at $400 million to $500 million a year. Some analysts say it could far exceed that number.

Doctors at Nutri/System, a chain of diet clinics with 100,000 clients, will start writing prescriptions "as soon as it's in drugstores," said Brian Haveson, the company's president.

In a preemptive strike at critics, Knoll has begun a marketing pitch saying the drug is very different from the two drugs pulled from the market in August. The company says it will actively try to keep casual dieters from using it for cosmetic slimming.

"We are reaching out to doctors to partner with them to ensure that Meridia is used on the right patients, in the right way, for the right reasons," Knoll marketing head Steve Freeman said Thursday.

The drug may be the only way to get many frustrated dieters back in medical treatment programs.

Older diet drugs are still available, and Pfizer Inc. and Roche Laboratories are working on future drugs. But the August recall left seriously obese people with no satisfactory options, said Morgan Downey, executive director of the American Obesity Association.

Obesity experts hope to avoid the kind of surging popularity that spawned diet "pill mills" that pitched Redux and fen-phen as miracle weight-loss cures and then shut down after the recall. Some doctors were prescribing the drugs by telephone.

"As we saw with Redux, there's a tremendous pent-up market in weight loss," Mr. Downey said. "I think -- I hope -- the public has learned there is a danger in prescribing this to individuals who do not fit the criteria."

The criteria approved by the FDA is complex -- a "body mass index" that declares patients obese if they are 30 percent overweight -- but Neil Campbell fit it.

The Santa Monica, Calif., wine wholesaler usually avoids drugs, but he found his 6-foot-4 frame expanding as sales meetings increasingly mingled wine, cheese and fatty luncheon fare. After participating in a six-month research trial of Meridia, he went from 280 pounds to 240.

"It took the edge off the hunger," said Mr. Campbell, 48, now a management consultant. "Have you ever had the feeling where you've binged on a food, like ice cream or cookies, and started popping them like popcorn? It tended to eliminate that drive. I wouldn't feel I had to put everything into my mouth."