Just like the hairstyles of celebrity dieter Oprah Winfrey, more than a few appetite-suppressing drugs and dietary supplements have come and gone over the years — mostly gone due to dangerous side effects. Let’s not forget that not all that long ago, straight-out amphetamines were doled out to long-haul truck drivers and members of the military, not to mention those looking to shed a few excess pounds. And how can we forget good old Fen-Phen? TrimSpa, baby?
And then there’s Qnexa, a weight loss “cocktail” pill (it’s a combination of two existing medications, one of which is used primarily to treat epilepsy) that recently — and controversially — secured an overwhelming endorsement from a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee. If the experimental anti-obesity drug is given the final stamp of approval by the FDA in July, Qnexa will be the first new prescription weight loss drug to hit the market in 13 years. (The last was Orlistat, a lipase inhibitor that’s perhaps better known in its over-the-counter form as Alli.) In clinical trials of Qnexa, participants saw an average loss of about 10 percent of total body weight along with lowered blood pressure. However, the same risks — increased chance of birth defects and heart problems — that prompted the FDA to block the drug in 2010 still exist. So what’s different this time around? Qnexa’s maker, California-based Vivus Inc., promises stringent oversight to ensure that only at-risk, obese patients with qualifying body-mass indexes (BMIs) are prescribed the drug.
Although we can’t predict the longevity of Qnexa (provided that it’s ultimately approved by the FDA, as expected), we thought we’d take a calorie-burning walk down memory lane to review a few appetite suppressants of the prescription and herbal variety that were ultimately discontinued or outlawed due to harmful side effects ranging from suicide to strokes.
Is there a now-banned diet pill that we left off the list? Tell us about it in the comments section.
Meridia: One of the more recent prescription appetite suppressants to be pulled by the FDA, this anti-obesity treatment also sold under the names Reductil and Sibutrex and contained sibutramine, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. Or, to put it simply, the drug contained something that helped to boost the levels of chemical messengers in charge of relaying the following message to the brain’s satiety center: “OK, I’m full already … time to lay off that cheesecake.” When used in combination with diet and exercise, Meridia may have helped folks shed a few pounds. However, it also came with some scary side effects for at-risk patients including stroke and heart attack, which is why Abbot Laboratories voluntarily ceased production of the drug in October 2010. Weight-loss drugs containing sibutramine have also been discontinued in the European Union, Canada, China, Hong Kong, the U.K., Thailand and several other countries.
Ephedra: Once upon a time, ephedra-based dietary supplements were all the rage amongst dieters. Relatively cheap and easy to find in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, just about everyone and their weight-watching brother was experimenting with — or completely hooked on — over-the-counter supplements (Metabolife and Anna Nicole Smith’s beloved TrimSpa were particularly popular) containing the herbal stimulant ma huang, a mainstay in traditional Chinese medicine. As ephedra proved, just because a diet wonder drug is plant-based and not invented in the laboratory of a pharmaceutical firm doesn’t necessarily mean it’s without risks. During the ephedra craze, users experienced adverse side effects such as stroke, heart attack and in some cases, death. The FDA made the sale of supplements containing ephedra illegal in late 2004, which resulted in a heated, drawn-out court battle between the agency and a supplement manufacturer. And, yes, products like Metabolife and TrimSpa are still around but no longer contain the herbal ingredient that made them famous.
Aminorex: Don’t remember the days when your weight-conscious pals were wild about Aminorex? Well, it’s probably because you weren’t living in Germany, Switzerland or Austria from 1965 to 1972, when this over-the-counter appetite suppressant with a chemical composition not too dissimilar from amphetamine was popular among pill-popping dieters. The Aminorex fad was mercifully short-lived as usage of the drug resulted in an “epidemic of pulmonary hypertension” in those three countries, with cases of the serious lung disorder increasing tenfold. The epidemic ended in 1972 when Aminorex was discontinued.
Fen-Phen: To be clear, although the “fen” in Fen-Phen, fenfluramine, was outlawed by the FDA way back in 1997 due to adverse side effects including heart valve disease and pulmonary hypertension, the “phen,” phentermine, found in the controversial, once-insanely popular appetite suppressant combo drug is still alive and well and sold under brand names such as Adipex P. And although phentermine is frequently prescribed a la carte as a short-term weight loss solution to be used in conjunction with improved diet and exercise, it’s also one of two key ingredients found in the FDA approval-pending appetite suppressant “cocktail” drug, Qnexa, along with topiramate, an anticonvulsant used to treat epilepsy and migraine headaches.
Rimonbant: More popularly known under the trade name of Acomplia, this slimming drug developed by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis managed to sell like hotcakes in the U.K. during its two-year life span. However, the drug, which was never approved for the U.S. market, was yanked by the European Medicines Agency in 2008 because the risk of serious side effects — specifically depression and suicidal thoughts — ultimately outweighed its benefits. In total, 2,500 “adverse reactions” were reported by British patients prescribed Rimonbant; seven deaths were also associated with the drug, one of them a suicide. Clinical trials conducted by Sanofi-Aventis found the drug was also helpful in smoking cessation therapy, although it was never marketed as anything but an anti-obesity treatment.
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