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Fen-Phen Lawsuit Under Way

One of the manufacturers of the fen-phen diet drug misled doctors about the damage the pills could do, putting patients at increased risk for heart and lung ailments, a lawyer said Wednesday.

Plaintiffs' attorney Esther Berezofsky comments' came as opening statements got under way in the first class-action suit to come to trial against Madison, N.J.-based American Home Products Corp., manufacturer of half of the fen-phen diet drug combination.

Three New Jersey women are suing the company on behalf of 94,000 New Jerseyans who took the pills.

AHP -- which made fenfluramine, the "fen" half of the drug duo marketed under the brand names Redux and Pondimin -- could be forced to pay more than $1 billion over the next decade if it loses the civil case, brought by patients who took the drug combination for at least three months.

The plaintiffs say they want checkups for the next several years to check for any signs of heart and lung problems. Such complaints forced the drugs off the market in 1997.

"We are not here for money, we're here for monitoring," said Berezofsky.

Some 4,000 individual lawsuits, along with a number of other class-action lawsuits, are pending against the company nationwide, AHP said. The case is the only one in which healthy people are seeking medical checkups rather than financial awards for damage already suffered.

Last week, a Texas jury awarded $23 million to a 36-year-old woman who faces lifelong heart problems she blames on fen-phen.

Defense lawyer Peter Blakeley said today AHP "acted lawfully and responsibly when it learned of the risks posed by Redux and Pondimin."

Blakeley said of the plaintiffs: "None of them have taken Pondimin for at least two years. None of them has any symptoms whatsoever."

He said the drugs were always meant to treat obese people, not people who simply needed to lose a few pounds.

About 6 million Americans took either fenfluramine, which was sold under the brand name Pondimin, or its chemical look-alike, dexfenfluramine, sold under the name Redux, to lose weight. Both drugs make the brain trick the stomach into feeling full.

AHP pulled them off pharmacy shelves in September 1997, several months after reports from the Mayo Clinic linked the drugs to potentially fatal heart valve damage in some patients.

The other half of fen-phen, phentermine, was never associated with that damage when taken alone and is still on the market.