In recent years the pills have become an increasingly prominent part of the pounds 1bn slimming industry in Britain. Many users experienced a dramatic weight loss in a matter of only weeks while using the drugs, which suppress the appetite or speed up the metabolism.
But the use of the pills, obtained mostly from private slimming clinics, has caused growing concern among medical experts. Among the side effects are addiction, insomnia, depression, hair-loss, restlessness, hallucinations and, at worst, death.
Despite efforts to control the spread of the drugs, handed out in liberal quantities by the clinics for between pounds 25 and pounds 50 for a six-week supply, the drugs' attraction has been widespread among anxious slimmers, many of whom are not even medically overweight.
The Duchess of York and Whitney Houston, the singer, have reportedly taken slimming drugs. Ms Houston was rushed to hospital with an irregular heartbeat after she attempted to shed weight quickly following the birth of her daughter in 1993.
Dr Michael Spira, adviser to Slimmers Clubs UK, is among those who do not wish to see the drugs banned, but brought under more rigid control, for use only in extreme cases of obesity. He believes the drugs should only be available on NHS prescriptions, from approved doctors and specialists in obesity.
Dr Spira stressed the best way to lose weight for most people was a healthy diet, with low fat and refined sugar contents, and plenty of exercise. He said: "Pills should only really be prescribed for people who are extremely overweight and have tried traditional methods of dieting and have failed."
The drugs fall into two main groups: appetite suppressants, stimulants which work like amphetamines, speeding up the metabolism and burning up more energy; and diuretics,which can strip the body of water and potassium.
The most disturbing trend is the use of the drugs among women who are not medically overweight, but still wish to shed pounds. Many are competing with the waif- like figures of catwalk models like Kate Moss and Jodie Kidd, who have created an unnatural ideal.
One of the first casualties was Mavis Fryer, a former model who died three years ago, aged 52, after an addiction to slimming pills that spanned 30 years. She first started taking them when Twiggy, the first super- waif, had created the look.
Miss Fryer was forced to take more and more pills for them to take effect, but her weight still ballooned to 15 stone, and when she died she was taking 20 times the recommended dose of Duromine.
Shirley Farrell, 36, a receptionist from Dagenham, Essex, is among those who had a genuine weight problem, but experienced disturbing side- effects from slimming pills and also found the weight loss temporary. She went to a private clinic in Ilford when her weight reached 18 stone and paid pounds 500 for a six-month course of pills.
"The doctor didn't even give me a medical check-up. He simply weighed me and dished out pills and a diet sheet," she said. I still don't know what they were. It's ripping people off when they're extremely vulnerable. When you're really overweight, you're so desperate you'd try anything."
Although Ms Farrell lost three stone, she regained the weight as soon as she stopped taking the pills, and she also suffered from depression and fatigue. Only when she left the clinic and followed a healthy eating plan, did her weight drop properly to 11st 8lb.Reuse content