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Scales Tip Toward Drug-Free Weight Loss

Health: Removal of fen-phen from the market could be a boon to traditional clinics.

September 17, 1997|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who's ever tried to lose weight will take issue with two new advertising campaigns that suggest dieting is as simple as ABC or one, two, three.

But analysts say that campaigns unveiled last month by Weight Watchers International Inc. and Jenny Craig Inc. could lead to increased market share for the industry leaders now that two popular diet drugs have been linked to heart valve problems and pulled from the market.

Removal of the drugs fenfluramine, sold as Pondimin, and dexfenfluramine, sold as Redux, from the weight-loss arsenal in effect spells the end of the fen-phen drug phenomenon that has been sweeping through Southern California and is likely to strengthen traditional weight-loss programs.

Analysts said Woodbury, N.Y.-based Weight Watchers could be the big winner, since it never offered the diet drugs. Competitors Jenny Craig and Nutri/Systems made Redux available to clients but have discontinued the practice.

"This could be very positive for someone like Weight Watchers," said John LaRosa, president of Marketdata Enterprises Inc., a Tampa-based company that tracks diet industry trends. "They can honestly say: 'We've taken the safe route all along. We were looking out for your health.' "

Weight Watchers, a unit of Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz, with an estimated $1 billion in revenue, stuck with its traditional nonprescription approach even as consumers embraced fen-phen programs run by physicians, hospitals and weight-loss clinics.

"We're not a medical organization, and we never pretended to be," said Weight Watchers spokeswoman Linda Webb Carilli. "Medical decisions about prescription drugs should be left to people and their personal physicians."

Analysts say Jenny Craig, which had seen its revenue fall as fen-phen's popularity rose, could also benefit from the drugs' removal from the market.

The La Jolla-based company removed fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine from its program in August--just eight months after adding them as an "adjunct" to its core nonprescription program.

Jenny Craig spokesman Brian Luscomb said the two drugs were restricted to "medically qualified" clients whose weight was at least 30% above healthy levels. "These were not approved for cosmetic uses," Luscomb said.

With their new ad campaigns--"1.2.3 Success" from Weight Watchers and "ABC Program" from Jenny Craig--the companies are trying to tell consumers that simple tactics work in the war against excess weight.

The competitors advise their "clients" to eat appropriately, exercise regularly and incorporate a healthy dollop of behavior modification to eliminate bad habits that add unwanted pounds.

But the ads also underscore a hard fact: Americans prefer easy solutions--"magic bullets" such as fen-phen that were designed to reduce hunger pangs and make weight loss a less frustrating process.

The pills were initially designed for obese people whose physical condition was endangering their health. But as the pills grew in popularity, consumers began pressuring weight-loss companies to make them available.

"The reason people wanted to take pills is because they thought it would be so easy," Weight Watchers' Carilli said. "They thought, 'I don't have to do anything.' Well, we recognize where people are coming from, so our new 1.2.3 program is the simplest thing we've ever offered in the marketplace."

When the dust from the FDA's action settles, many diet-conscious consumers will face tough choices on which weight-loss programs are truly effective and safe.

Nutri/Systems and its U.S. Medical Weight Loss Clinics, which operate more than 500 clinics nationwide, dropped the two drugs from its programs in August when word of the possible heart valve link surfaced.

Nutri/Systems will offer different prescription drugs and herbal alternatives designed to reduce hunger and help consumers shed weight, said company Vice President Joseph DiBartolomeo.

*

Times freelancer Susan Howlett contributed to this report.

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