The big test for Barbara Dorsett, a Buford, Georgia, homemaker, came on a visit to the local Red Lobster last month. Dorsett, 50, had tried low-carbohydrate diets and the Scarsdale diet and plenty of other weight-loss schemes in an effort to shed the extra 100 lbs. she carried on her 5-ft. 9-in. frame. But the weight had always been hard to take off and had always come back. This time seemed different. In her first two months on her new regimen, Dorsett had dropped 40 lbs., and she swore she would lose 60 more by the end of the year. If she was going to fall off the wagon, though, it would probably be here, at one of her favorite restaurants. But try as she might, Dorsett couldn't even finish her potato, the most tempting part of the meal. "You don't want as much to eat," she explains. "Now I leave food on my plate. I'm full."
Stories like Dorsett's have become increasingly common over the past several months. People are dropping 20 lbs. or more in a matter of weeks. And it's not through willpower or exotic diets or Olympian exercise routines, but largely because, for the first time in their lives, they have simply lost interest in eating. The reason for this astonishing transformation: Redux, approved by the FDA last April as the first new diet drug in the U.S. in 23 years.
Naturally, these remarkable results have created a great buzz. Word of mouth is big in some circles in Southern California, for example, where washboard abs and buns of steel are practically residency requirements. National weight-loss clinics, including Jenny Craig and Nutri/System, are scrambling to work Redux into their programs. Last week Sheldon Levine, a New Jersey diet doctor, began a high-profile nationwide publicity campaign to flog his new book, The Redux Revolution (Morrow; $20), a 222-page paean to what is being promoted as "the most important weight-loss discovery of the century."
At the same time, physicians, including thousands of general practitioners, are being chatted up by sales agents for Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, a division of American Home Products, which is marketing Redux. And in October, according to doctors and industry analysts, the company will begin a widespread advertising campaign to promote the drug directly to the public. (The company begs to differ: it claims it is planning only to "educate" the public about obesity.) Just three months after the introduction of Redux, doctors are writing 85,000 prescriptions a week. Says David Crossen, an analyst for Montgomery Securities in San Francisco: "What we have here is probably the fastest launch of any drug in the history of the pharmaceutical industry. Our projection is that this product will hit $1 billion in sales in five years."
Not bad for a drug that's new only in a sense. In fact, Redux is essentially just a refined version of a compound called fenfluramine, which is usually taken along with another drug, phentermine, in a combination known popularly as fen/phen. Like fenfluramine, Redux stimulates the production and availability of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is responsible for, among other things, the physical and emotional sense of being satisfied, of having had enough. Serotonin also triggers a more general feeling of well-being (antidepressants like Prozac work on the serotonin system as well); some experts think the mood-elevating effect of Redux and fen/phen probably helps with weight loss.