"Miracle" Diet Drug Alli not Without Side Effects

By: Andrea Canning
By: Andrea Canning

When the diet drug Alli first hit store shelves in June 2007 it was hailed as a wonder drug, a pill that could help dieters lose up to 50% more weight.

But as sales soared, so did the number of postings in internet chat rooms from users complaining about side effects.

Now, a new commercial from the makers of the drug is on air, trying to answer the questions raised on those message boards.

So the bottom line is, does Alli live up to its promises?

"I'm 100 pounds overweight," said Alli user, Stefanie Henderson.

"It's emotionally draining. I cry constantly. At 24-years-old I weigh 240 pounds."

For Stefanie Henderson, staying slim has been a lifelong battle.

So when America's first FDA-approved, non-prescription diet drug 'Alli' came along seven months ago, accompanied by a $150-million ad campaign, Stefanie and millions of others raced to pharmacies to get their hands on what was touted as diet gold.

Alli claims to block your body's absorption of fat in food.

"I was in line, at the front door of Wal-Mart waiting for it to open when Alli was introduced," recalled Henderson.

Sales initially skyrocketed.

Two-million Alli starter kits were sold within the first four months, with sales of $217-million.

"There's none available, it's just going like crazy all over," said one pharmacy owner.

But at one of the biggest pharmacy chains, Walgreen's says sales did slow and the question remains seven months later.

Has the drug really helped people lose weight?

Stefanie says Alli seemed like a magic remedy at first, with a quick loss of ten pounds.

But after just four weeks she says her weight loss plateaued and she started experiencing some unpleasant side effects that landed her in the emergency room twice.

"I couldn't control my bowels," said Henderson.

"I was running to the bathroom, leaving meetings, being in the car and literally being stuck."

She stopped the drug after six weeks, and says within three months the majority of her Alli Myspace support group had also given up.

And all kinds of testimonials popped up in weight loss chat rooms on-line.

"What they do not tell you is that you will have to take several changes of underwear wherever you go," wrote one frustrated user.

"When they say to watch your fat intake, watch it, otherwise you will pay," complained another.

"I was on Alli for three weeks and followed the plan exactly," stated Henderson.

"The scale did not budge. People took it and had the same problems I did. It wasn't worth the expense and the trouble and the embarrassment to lose the weight."

For Stefanie, Alli was not a magic bullet.

Experts say sticking with a diet drug is not an easy task, not only because of potential side effects.

"The typical pattern for people on weight loss drugs is to go into it with a lot of enthusiasm," explains Dr. Kelly Brownell, of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

"Many people don't lose as much as they'd like and they get discouraged and go off the drugs."

"I think they have a very effect business model," says Dr. Mitchell Roslin, of the Lenox Hill Hospital.

"Do I think this will make an impact on the nation's health? The answer is no."

But Alli manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline says that Alli continues to surpass sales expectations and is helping people lose weight in the long term.

The company and the FDA say it has proven results, and that Alli, combined with healthy eating and exercise, can yield results of 50% more weight loss than dieting alone.

"It's an assist," says Rebecca Reeves, a Dietitian at GlaxoSmithKline.

"It's a way to help you give a little bit of an edge on helping to lose weight."

Jennifer Erickson says her active lifestyle in Colorado wasn't enough to drop the weight, but that the combination of working out, eating right, and taking Alli, helped her lose 40 pounds since April.

"It was so empowering that Alli was a tool I used," said Erickson.

"But it was all me, all my sweat in my workouts, my good choices and I just used used Alli to help me make those good choices."

And as for those potentially embarrassing side effects, the company says it's about controlling the amount of fat in your diet.

"If you abuse the drug, if you abuse the fat intake that you're eating, you're going to see a treatment effect," states Reeves.

But Stefanie Henderson says she didn't abuse the drug and followed the directions.

In the meantime, she has given up on diet drugs and has chosen the one diet that will never go out of style.

"No late night snacks, going to the gym three or four times a week," said Henderson.

"Getting sick to lose weight, I finally realized it's just not worth it at all."


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