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Slimmer Profits in Store for O.C. Diet Centers

September 17, 1997|BARBARA MARSH and SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Orange County weight-loss clinics are scrambling to stay in business after two controversial diet drugs, Redux and Pondimin, were removed from the market following research linking them to potentially serious heart problems.

"I'm trying to weather the storm," Dr. Robert Skversky, owner of Weight No More clinics in Irvine and Newport Beach, said Tuesday.

Skversky said his revenue has fallen drastically since Mayo Clinic researchers earlier this year reported 24 cases of a rare valvular disease in women taking the drugs in combination with another drug to create fen-phen.

With his caseload of patients down to 1,500 from 2,100, Skversky said he has cut his staff to 11 from 19. And the Food and Drug Administration's request Monday that the two drugs be removed from the market altogether has forced him to consider cutting back even further.

"I've had to rethink some things," he said, noting that he may close one of the Orange County clinics.

Throughout the county Tuesday, scores of fen-phen and Redux users lit up the phone lines at diet centers, searching for answers.'

"What am I supposed to do?" asked Jody Fielding of Garden Grove, who has used Redux for two months to lose 20 pounds of what she called "post-baby blubber."

"I guess I'll have to do something else."

Business at weight-loss centers swelled after Redux entered the market in June 1996 and doctors began prescribing it for patients seeking weight loss.

And it wasn't long before the "magic pill" success stories of patients taking Redux, or dexfenfluramine, in combination with phentermine created an instant business opportunity. Pondimin, or fenfluramine, had been sold since 1973.

Almost overnight, empty storefronts in strip malls were transformed into Redux clinics promising a cutting-edge defense in the battle of the bulge.

"Everyone was jumping on this thing," said Michael Kurtz, an osteopath who practices sports medicine in Garden Grove.

"There was even a poster stapled to a telephone pole outside my office that advertised losing 30 pounds on fen-phen," he said.

Indeed, so many local physicians were prescribing the combo that the market cooled.

"I hired a lot of people when fen-phen first came out last year, but this year the market has been so crowded by other doctors offering and advertising it," said Dr. Ken D. Lacroix, who operates weight-loss clinics in Tustin and Huntington Beach.

Like most physicians whose patients were clamoring for the diet aids, Kurtz said he eventually prescribed it, but only after thorough consultation and examination.

Kurtz said he discontinued their use as of Monday.

"People should look at their long-term heath, not their short-term gain," he said.

Weight-loss centers that specialized in programs other than fen-phen say they are benefiting from Monday's FDA action.

"Business is really picking up," said Ellie Cruz of the Diet Center in Irvine, where fen-phen and Redux have never been a part of the program.

Industry analysts said slimming programs, such as Weight Watchers, that never offered the diet drugs could also be winners. Competitors Jenny Craig and Nutri/Systems made Redux available to their clients, but have discontinued the practice.

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

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

Analysts say that Jenny Craig, which had seen its revenue fall as fen-phen's popularity rose, could also benefit from the decision to pull the drugs 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 that the two drugs were restricted to "medically qualified" clients whose weight was at least 30% above a healthy level. "These were not approved for cosmetic uses," Luscomb said.

Weight-loss clinics said the declining demand started earlier this summer when the Mayo Clinic research raised health concerns about the drugs.

Wyeth-Ayerst, a subsidiary of American Home Products Corp. of New Jersey, which makes Pondimin and distributes Redux, reports that in California, 15,000 Redux prescriptions were written in July, compared with 27,000 for July last year.

What's more, Pondimin prescriptions dropped to 42,000 in July compared with 102,000 in July 1996.

In Newport Beach, Skversky said he's advising his patients to continue taking phentermine--one half of the drug combo--which the FDA hasn't withdrawn from the market. He suggests they also take an antidepressant, such as Prozac, Zoloft or Effexor, to help avoid weight gain and treat depression.

But he questions results of the Mayo Clinic research.

Judging from researchers' findings, he said, "I'm theoretically sitting on a time bomb--if 30% of our patients have heart-valve problems."

But he said the chances of that are slim, based on his experience. He said that of the estimated 10,000 people he has treated with the fen-phen combo, only one has been diagnosed with heart-valve trouble.

Times staff writer Greg Johnson contributed to this report.

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