Thousands to sue over slimming pills

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The Independent Online
Tens of thousands of overweight Americans are preparing to sue the manufacturers of two of the most popular slimming pills in what lawyers are predicting could be the biggest compensation case since asbestos.

The worldwide withdrawal of the drugs fenfluramine and dexfenfluramine last September after they were linked with heart problems has triggered a feeding frenzy among legal firms who have been luring clients with the prospect of multi-million dollar suits.

More than 60,000 prescriptions for fenfluramine or dexfenfluramine were issued in 1996 in the UK but there have been no reports of patients suffering the heart problem side-effects and no arrangements have been made by the Department of Health for tracing patients who may have taken the drugs. As yet, there are no reports of imminent British legal actions.

A spokeswoman for Alexander Harris, the Manchester solicitors who specialise in medical litigation, said: "We have had a couple of inquiries but interest is only just beginning. It usually follows what happens in the US."

An estimated four to six million patients in the US have taken the pills and studies have suggested more than a million could be affected. Cases have been filed in every US state and a steering group of lawyers are meeting early next month to co-ordinate them in a mass action to be heard before a judge in Philadelphia.

Larry Burman, a Philadelphia lawyer and member of the steering group, said: "There are hundreds of cases filed in the federal courts and hundreds and hundreds in the state court system. Each could be one person or 20. A lot of people are saying this could be one of the biggest mass tort cases [class actions] ever to hit the court system."

Paul Rheingold, a New York lawyer said: "We have 3,000 cases we are looking into and we are filing five or six a day. We don't know how many will translate into law suits but we have 100 so far. I would guess the total for the US will involve 100,000 individuals, one of the biggest actions ever."

Diet pills became a craze in America four years ago. The most popular prescription was for "fen-phen", the appetite suppressant fenfluramine which was combined with the stimulant drug phentermine to increase its effectiveness. The US Food and Drugs Administration asked the manufacturers of fenfluramine to withdraw the product after studies showed 30 per cent of patients taking the combination had abnormal echocardiograms, indicating heart defects. The fen-phen combination never caught on in the UK prior to the withdrawal of fenfluramine.

Some patients have been found to have damaged heart valves and pulmonary hypertension - increased resistance to the flow of blood in the lungs. The New England Journal of Medicine reported last August the case of a 29-year-old woman who died after taking the combination for only 23 days. She was five-feet five-inches tall and weighed 13-and-a-half stone.

Mr Rheingold said: "If you are talking pulmonary hypertension or valve replacement, those are million dollar cases. Others could have a claim for psychological damage. But many may have been unaware anything was wrong until they had an echocardiogram."

Fenfluramine, which is thought to the cause of the problems, was introduced in the Sixties and has been taken by millions of people. Dexfenfluramine, which is half the molecule of fenfluramine, has also been withdrawn. It was developed to retain the appetite suppressant properties but with fewer side effects of dry mouth, dizziness and digestive problems. Phentermine remains on the market.

Experts are puzzled why it has taken so long for the danger to emerge. One possibility is that it may only apply to the combination treatment.