Fen Phen has been linked to heart valve damage, leaky heart valves, and pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), formerly known as primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH). These serious, debilitating, and life-threatening conditions may not be diagnosed for years after a person took a diet pill. Even people who only took the pills for a short period of time have suffered injury or death.
The Story of Fen Phen’s Rise and Fall
The story of fenfluramine diet pills (Fen Phen, Redux, and Pondimin) began in the mid-1990s. In 1992, a study found that more than 1/3 of Americans were overweight, and people were looking for a quick and effective solution. The drug Isomeride was already popular in Europe, and contained fenfluramine, an “anoretic” drug that could make a person’s brain release serotonin, which made them feel full and satisfied. Isomeride and Pondimin (an older diet pill with fenfluramine), were not very popular because they made people feel drowsy. Fenfluramine also caused altered moods and memory loss.
Then, a doctor decided to study whether the drowsy side effects of fenfluramine (“Fen”) could be fixed by combining it with another drug: Phentermine (“Phen”), a mild stimulant. Thus, Fen Phen was born, and though it had not been approved by the FDA for weight-loss, doctors began prescribing it “off label” for quick weight loss.
As the popularity of Fen Phen began to explode, the drug-company pushed a second diet pill: Redux (dexfenfluramine). Though there was concern about the safety of Redux — including a study that linked derivatives of fenfluramine to Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH) — the company continued to push Redux onto the U.S. marketplace.
Despite the advice of doctors who found a link between fenfluramine and Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Redux in April 1996.
With FDA approval, the diet pill craze began. The company marketing Fen Phen and Redux spent $52 million on a massive advertising campaign that included articles in popular magazines. In 1996, sales topped $300 million, and there were more than 18 million prescriptions for the medications.
However, the wild success would be short-lived, and soon come crashing down.
The FDA began receiving reports from doctors that they were treating a wave of people with unusual heart valve damage and Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH) in patients taking Fen Phen, Redux, or Pondimin. Even people who had only been taking the diet pills for a month showed signs of heart damage. On September 15, 1997, the FDA pulled Fen Phen, Redux, Pondimin, and fenfluramine diet pills off the shelves and banned their use in the U.S.
What is Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH)?
Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH), formerly known as Primary Pulmonary Hypertension (PPH), is a condition that occurs when the blood vessels in the lungs become damaged, causing them to narrow. This causes two major problems: 1) The heat must work harder to pump blood through the narrow opening, and 2) The blood pressure in the lungs increases. Because less blood is being pumped into the lungs, less blood becomes oxygenated when you breathe. Low oxygen levels can make a person feel weak, tired, short of breath, or light-headed during activity. Over time, PAH can become life-threatening. How? Because the heart must work extra hard to pump blood to the lungs, over time it becomes enlarged. The heart muscle becomes thicker, stiffer, and can ultimately fail. Heart failure is a fatal side effect of using Fen Phen and other diet pills.
Symptoms of Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH) include:
- Shortness of breath or light-headedness during activity, or during rest
- Fast heart rate
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or fainting
- Bluish color in the nails, skin, or lips (called “cyanosis”)
- Ankle and leg swelling
Injuries Linked to Fen Phen
- Primary Pulmonary Hypertension (PPH)
- Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH)
- Heart valve damage
- Leaky heart valve
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart murmur
- Damage to blood vessels in the lungs
- Heart failure