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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 10859

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Pollard R.
Doctors fear run on quick-fix diet pill
Sydney Morning Herald 2006 Feb 28

Full text:

A WEIGHT-LOSS drug that can cause side-effects such as diarrhoea and incontinence is set to be marketed directly to consumers following a decision by the Federal Government’s drugs and poisons committee.

The move has caused widespread concern, with doctors worried it may be targeted at teenagers or encourage people to go for a quick-fix solution to being overweight or obese rather than changing diet and lifestyle.

The drug, Xenical, prevents the body from absorbing fat and was approved as an over-the-counter medication in mid-2004, after being sold as a prescription medication since 2000.

Since then about 150,000 people who were overweight or obese had used the drug, its manufacturer, Roche, said yesterday.

But until now the company has been prevented from identifying the brand name in advertising, resulting in vague television and print ad campaigns such as “Boost your diet – ask your pharmacist”.

The company described the committee’s recommendation as “a major step forward in the fight against obesity” and wasted no time in pushing the drug as safer than other “fad diet products” on the market.

It was the only weight-loss product consumers could buy without a doctor’s prescription that had gone through rigorous testing, said Fred Nadjarian, managing director of Roche Products.

Acknowledging that the “vast majority of people go to a pharmacy or a health food store or supermarket in the hope of a miracle cure”, he said the recommendation meant the company could give consumers the information to help them make informed decisions about the drug.

“I can’t say exactly how we will advertise. We want to attract people who have decided to or are willing to go on the diet,” Mr Nadjarian said.

The drug worked best for people who stuck to a diet and did regular exercise, said Greg Fulcher, an endocrinologist at Royal North Shore Hospital.

“Xenical works by inhibiting breakdown of fat in the diet – it reduces intake by 30 per cent, but unless people have already made dietary changes, they get terrible diarrhoea, flatulence and incontinence.

“The drug then becomes socially unacceptable … the side effects become so bad people actually stop taking the drug.”

Dr Fulcher said that if people could tolerate the drug they experienced weight loss, and in those with diabetes there was an improvement in their symptoms.

But he expressed concern that consumers would obtain the drug without the appropriate advice from a qualified practitioner.

In the US and New Zealand, where direct-to-consumer advertising was common, the message about Xenical was more about appearance than health, said David Henry, professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Newcastle.

“The quality of advertising has not been very good It is almost always promoted for cosmetic reasons.”

Advertising drugs directly to consumers was fraught with danger, said Jon Jureidini, the chairman of Healthy Skepticism, a website that looks at pharmaceutical marketing techniques.

“All drugs have the potential to harm as well as to benefit, so people may not have the necessary skills to discern the risks. That is part of the reason you have health professionals involved in decisions about medication.”

A spokeswoman for the Therapeutic Goods Administration said there would be an opportunity for public comment on the National Drugs and Poisons Schedule Committee’s recommendation, which is expected to be ratified in September.


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Email a Friend influence multinational corporations effectively, the efforts of governments will have to be complemented by others, notably the many voluntary organisations that have shown they can effectively represent society’s public-health interests…
A small group known as Healthy Skepticism; formerly the Medical Lobby for Appropriate Marketing) has consistently and insistently drawn the attention of producers to promotional malpractice, calling for (and often securing) correction. These organisations [Healthy Skepticism, Médecins Sans Frontières and Health Action International] are small, but they are capable; they bear malice towards no one, and they are inscrutably honest. If industry is indeed persuaded to face up to its social responsibilities in the coming years it may well be because of these associations and others like them.
- Dukes MN. Accountability of the pharmaceutical industry. Lancet. 2002 Nov 23; 360(9346)1682-4.