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This is a tale of two types of weight-loss products and how the Food and Drug Administration had different responses to similar problems with them. The separate, but not equivalent treatment raises questions about how the FDA operates.

On Aug. 24, the FDA issued a statement about an ongoing safety review of orlistat based on reports of liver injury in people taking the weight-loss drug. It is marketed as the prescription drug Xenical and the over-the-counter medication Alli.

The FDA said it had received 32 reports of serious liver injury in patients taking orlistat between 1999 and 2008.  Of those cases, 27 required hospitalization and six resulted in liver failure.

Sound familiar? It should. On May 1, the FDA issued a warning about the danger of Hydroxycut based on 23 reported liver problems over seven years, including 16 hospitalizations. One person died in February 2007 after taking that weight-loss product.

That is where the stories diverge. For orlistat, the FDA is conducting a review because, “no definite association between liver injury and orlistat has been established at this time,” according to the release. “Consumers taking Xenical should continue to take it as prescribed, and those using over-the-counter Alli should continue to use the product as directed.”

In contrast, the FDA told consumers to stop immediately using Hydroxycut even though the agency acknowledged in a health hazard evaluation board report that “The Board does not know what ingredient(s) of Hydroxycut are responsible for producing liver toxicity. In addition, there is insufficient information to determine whether there is a dose-response effect between Hydroxycut ingestion and liver disease or whether its effects are cumulative over time.”

Despite a lack of direct evidence, the board concluded “that the ingestion of the dietary supplement, Hydroxycut, presents a severe potentially life-threatening hazard to some users.” The makers of Hydroxycut immediately ordered a recall.

What might the same health board members think about orlistat? It has caused liver injuries for a longer time period and has put more people in the hospital with similar ailments — jaundice and liver failure.

Does the FDA give greater weight to the patient death? If so, it seems to us that the product would have been recalled in 2007.

Is the difference the way the products are regulated? The FDA approved Xenical in 1999 and Alli in 2007. None of the ingredients in Hydroxycut were identified in the report as needing FDA review.

If the distinctions are not clear from a review of the facts, then what are we to expect the next time a weight-loss product is associated with health problems?


Joel B. Rothman represents clients in intellectual property infringement litigation involving patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, defamation, trade libel, unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and commercial matters. Joel’s litigation practice also includes significant focus on electronic discovery issues such as e-discovery management and motion practice relating to e-discovery.