A Weighty Matter, Part 1: The FDA Did What?

James J. Gormley, Founder

October 9, 2012

4 Min Read
A Weighty Matter, Part 1: The FDA Did What?

Considering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) record as a flibbertigibbet on weight-loss product enforcement (dragging its feet on ephedrine for years while green-lighting dangerous weight-loss drugs on a dime)— and in light of the FTC’s record of multimillion dollar fines and orders against makers of supplement weight-loss products — for any company to enter this arena, either with a proprietary slimming ingredient or with a finished product, it is a minefield out there. Witness the recent warning letters sent by the FDA to makers of HCG diet products.

Despite (or due to) the aforementioned spotty record, it is hard to fathom an FDA agency advisory committee’s recent green light for a combo of phentermine and topiramate (Qnexa), a diet pill that has, according to the Alliance for Natural Health, “documented risks of causing birth defects and heart problems.”

Abdominal Cramps Anyone?

On January 24, 1996, the FDA approved the synthetic fat-substitute, olestra, for use in snacks. But would you want a product with this warning? “This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients.”

Anal leakage is most certainly not on my “hit parade” of things I am looking for in a snack beverage, or any product for that matter!

According to an update by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “Olestra is a moribund, if not totally dead, product.” No surprise there.

A few years later, in March 1999, consumer and industry advocates successfully testified on Capitol Hill to oppose the FDA’s proposal to redefine disease to include life stages and normal discomforts, such as pregnancy, aging, menopause and headache.

The FTC Steps Into the Breach

On November 9, 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched “Operation Big Fat Lie,” what it billed as “a nation-wide law enforcement sweep against […] companies making false weight-loss claims in national advertisements.”

According to the FTC at the time: “Operation Big Fat Lie is the latest in the Commission’s efforts to: stop deceptive advertising and provide refunds to consumers harmed by unscrupulous weight-loss advertisers; encourage media outlets not to carry advertisements containing bogus weight-loss claims; and educate consumers to be on their guard against companies promising miraculous weight loss without diet or exercise.”

Agreed, although the FDA’s track record on weight-loss products in all categories has not helped American consumers very much, either.


In 2006, GSK applied to get its drug (orlistat) — which was said, at the time, by the group Public Citizen, to have a history of side effects and gastrointestinal problems — re-classified as an OTC weight loss drug called alli™.

Shades of olestra, Public Citizen’s objections cited such embarrassing product usage problems as anal leakage and such serious problems as pre-cancerous lesions. On February 7, 2007, the FDA dismissed the group’s well -argued petition, saying that the product label already warns people about the messy bowel problems.

As to those pesky pre-cancerous cellular changes allegedly caused by the drug (called “aberrant crypt foci”), the FDA said they aren’t of “clinical significance.”

Interesting, because according to the NIH National Cancer Institute, aberrant crypt foci represent “one of the earliest changes that can be seen in the colon that may lead to cancer.”

But, then again, FDA’s approvals were being called into question — institutional arrogance can’t allow that — and a powerful drug maker’s products were also being questioned.

Still dead set on the weight-loss market, on April 17, 2008, GSK and groups it funds submitted a Citizen Petition (FDA-2008-P-0248-0001) calling for the FDA to reclassify all weight loss support claims for dietary supplements as disease claims.

GSK was joined in this petition by the American Dietetic Association, the Obesity Society, and Shaping America’s Health. The organizations’ signatories included a lobbyist, a person who helped get obesity classified as a disease and a fundraising guru.

In the petition’s summary, GSK and its co-petitioners stated: “Moreover, the actions requested in this petition would help address concerns about the safety of weight loss supplements” and “By requiring weight-loss supplements to undergo pre-market review, FDA would shift the burden to manufacturers to show that their products are safe.”

What about the potential safety problems related to GSK’s alli? This product went through both a prescription drug and (an albeit cursory) OTC safety review process and it still has a number of reported concerns associated with it.

Allowing questionable weight-loss drugs and prohibiting legitimate claims for dietary supplements that assist people in achieving body composition and weight-loss goals would provide Big Pharma an El Dorado, like the legendary lost city of gold, and would cheat consumers out of safe, effective products while exposing them to unwarranted risk.

So, knowing FDA’s past, what is a manufacturer or marketer who wants to enter the weight-loss category to do? I’ll have that answer tomorrow. 

About the Author(s)

James J. Gormley

Founder, Gormley NPI Consulting

James Gormley is an award-winning health and medical writer, editor and author and the head of Gormley NPI Consulting. He wrote the Supplement Insights column for Natural Products Insider from 2011-2017, and also served as editor-in-chief of Better Nutrition magazine and editorial director for VRM Media. Gormley is a writer and consultant for natural products industry companies and magazines.

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