The diet drugs fenfluramine – “Fen-phen”

Popular name for a combination of the diet drugs fenfluramine and phentermine. Created by a French pharmaceutical company in the early 1970s, fenfluramine–which entered the American market in 1973–languished for a decade as an occasionally effective diet drug that commonly induced sleep in its users.

Fen-phen was born in the late 1980s when Dr. Michael Weintraub of the University of Rochester added a mild amphetamine-like substance called phentermine to fenfluramine (or Pondimin), thus eliminating the energy drag. In 1992, Weintraub and several colleagues published a study that showed fen-phen to be far more effective than dieting or exercise in reducing the weight of the chronically obese, and fen-phen was soon on the market.

Unlike an earlier generation of speed-laden diet drugs, fen-phen seemed to be without immediate side effects. Along with Redux (or dexfenfluramine, a more refined compound that boasts fewer side effects and, like fen-phen affects seratonin levels), fen-phen–which was never tested for safety–became a national sensation (6.6 million prescriptions in 1996), in part owing to new medical arguments that certain forms of obesity were actually diseases.

In the summer of 1997, the Food and Drug Administration found 24 cases of heart-valve deterioration in women who had taken fen-phen. Redux and the “fen” in fen-phen were recalled that September by its maker, Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, leaving many users to go cold turkey.

Although lawsuits immediately sprang up against drug companies, other combinations were soon in use such as fen-Pro (which swapped phentermine for Prozac) and over-the-counter “Herbal Fen Phen” and “Herbal Phen Fuel” variants relying mostly on St. John’s Wort and also ephedrine, the active ingredient in the original Herbal Ecstacy).

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