Fen-phen not for the thin, some doctors warn
December 19, 1996
Web posted at: 10:45 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen
This is the third in a series of reports on the diet drug
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The skinny on the diet aid fen-phen is that
the drugs should only be used by truly obese people under
direct medical supervision, but some people are not hearing
The problem is cultural. Some Americans are convinced that
thin is often not thin enough because TV and magazines
feature images of lacking an ounce of fat. It is the ultimate
"I didn't feel thin enough," said a fen-phen user named Cindy
who is 5'7" and weighed 140 pounds before going on the drugs.
"It's America; you have to be skinny."
Now at 124 pounds, Cindy says she is happy with her fen-phen
"I look better now," Cindy said. "And that's all that
The source of Cindy's happiness, the drugs fenfluramine and
phentermine being used together as an appetite suppressant,
is a source of concern for Dr. George Blackburn of Harvard
University's medical school.
"Mainly, what saddens me is that somebody is going to get
hurt, disabled, or die (from fen-phen)," Blackburn said.
The director of the UCLA School of Medicine's obesity clinic,
Dr. Morton Maxwell, is a little more practical in his
assessment of fen-phen use for the less-than-dangerously
"I don't think the risk is worth it for someone who wants to
lose 15 pounds for cosmetic reasons," Maxwell said.
Fen-phen's dark side is that its use may lead to amnesia,
depression or even the fatal lung-disease primary pulmonary
Yet some doctors are subscribing the fad diet drug
combination to their patients without much apparent concern
for potential side effects, deadly, or not.
Dr. Pietr Hitzig is one such physician.
Hitzig treats Sunny Griffin, a model who was featured in
television exercise programs 15 years ago. But since her
TV-show heyday, Griffin has picked up a few pounds. She now
weighs in at 138 pounds. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, she's a
lightweight by anyone's definition -- except hers.
Hitzig, with the help of fen-phen, has helped drop Griffin's
weight back to the point where she can once again fit into
"her Dior and Chanel gowns." Success for Hitzig is defined by
the fact that Griffin has "increased her salaries" for
modeling since using fen-phen.
Thousands of patients, many obese, many not, rely on Hitzig
to supply them with fen-phen.
"Even if it be a small amount of weight in this
weight-conscious world that we're in, I say the woman or man
should have the right to control their own bodies," Hitzig
The hitch in Hitzig's method of prescribing fen-phen is that
a great number of his patients never even see him. They are
treated over the phone. His brand of "telemedicine," as he
calls it, reaches people on four different continents, by his
UCLA's Maxwell said he is offended professionally by Hitzig's
liberal dispersal of the potentially dangerous drug
"I think this demeans the practice of medicine," Maxwell
Dr. Marcy Zwelling-Aamot councils her patients before handing
out a three-month prescription for fen-phen, and occasionally
turns down a fen-phen seeker for being too thin. But, like
Hitzig, she thinks the benefit to her patients outweighs the
risks. Zwelling-Aamot has few qualms about handing out a
prescription for someone seeking to lose only 10 or 15
"Weight is a very personal thing," said Zwelling-Aamot. "I
don't pass judgment. I don't tell people what they can or
But it is a doctor's job to pass judgment, Maxwell said. He
said doctors should turn down thin patients and follow up
with obese patients.
"Someone on fen-phen would see a medical doctor every week if
necessary, but at least every other week," Maxwell said.
He also said blood tests for fen-phen users should be done
every eight weeks under normal circumstance, more often if
abnormalities are apparent in the patient's health.
Maxwell and his obesity-clinic staff treat truly obese people
and are always on the lookout for early signs of PPH, memory
loss and other problems commonly associated with fen-phen
The next installment in CNN's fen-phen series elaborates on
health complications commonly associated with this fad
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