For Some, It's Better Safe Than Svelte

Lynn McAfee has reason to be wary of obesity drugs. By the age of 6, McAfee was taking amphetamines, digitalis, and diuretics to treat her weight problem. The drugs--given to millions of overweight people--took a toll. "Many of us were very seriously damaged," she says. McAfee, now 46 and a director of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination, an advocacy group, had to overcome amphetamine addiction as well as psychological trauma.

This history explains why McAfee and other advocates, such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), oppose approval of the latest obesity drug, dexfenfluramine, made by Interneuron Pharmaceuticals Inc. Even though the drug is available in 65 countries, McAfee says she is troubled by reports of brain toxicity in monkeys and the increased incidence of a very rare disorder--primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH), which affects blood vessels feeding the lungs.

McAfee recognizes that many obese people are clamoring for these new drugs. But she worries that society is biased against overweight people, leading to a weight-loss-at-any-cost attitude and approval of dangerous drugs.

"DETERMINED." Bobby W. Sandage Jr., executive vice-president for research and development at Interneuron, doesn't see dexfenfluramine as harmful. He says that neurotoxicity was seen in animals only at doses greater than 30 times those given humans. In yearlong tests on humans, there were no adverse brain effects. As for PPH, Sandage says the drug, along with obesity itself, does increase the incidence slightly. "Risk-benefit is still in favor of benefit," he says.

Assurances aside, McAfee says she will personally show up at the Food & Drug Administration for every obesity drug review possible. Her goal: "We're determined that we're not going to pay again for drugs that harm us rather than help us." That may mean the FDA decision could be political as well as medical.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.