Diet drug launch by man who took a dose of his own medicine

Author: By Stephen Foley in New York

The executive in charge of promoting GlaxoSmith-Kline’s weight-loss wonderdrug, Alli, can supply his own “before and after” photos. He’s been taking the pills for three years and has slimmed down by 60 pounds from his original 275 pounds. Steven Burton hopes the story of his personal battle with obesity will help Glaxo make money in a market that is unpredictable and prone to fads.

The drug works by preventing the body from absorbing about a third of the fat in meals and, as that fat has to go somewhere, users are prone to multiple visits to the loo and incontinence, it is claimed. Now, the Public Citizen, a consumer health group, argues that Alli could cause colon cancer. GSK denies the claim.

But they admit the side-effects may be off-putting. “I’ll never forget having a fish sandwich and loading it up with tartar sauce and having French fries,” says Mr Burton. The result was “a classic oops” and a dash home for a change of clothes.

But, as Mr Burton says: “I had a doctor who was telling me pretty bluntly that it was time to do something about my blood pressure and high cholesterol for the sake of my kids. That’s pretty motivating.”

GSK is making Mr Burton’s warts-and-all account of the drug available at the start of a marketing campaign that will accelerate over the summer. That is when the company is expected to win approval to launch Alli over-the-counter in US pharmacies. The pill is currently available only on prescription, under the brand name Xenical.

GSK paid $100m for the US rights to Alli, so Mr Burton is under pressure.

The company knows that dieters swap their experiences of the latest pills, potions and meal-time strategies, so that the success of a new weight-loss aid will be determined more by word-of-mouth than by a traditional corporate marketing machine.

GSK is also experimenting with new viral marketing techniques. It is already trying to create an online community of dieters at its website. This currently provides information and invites discussion on healthy lifestyles and existing dieting techniques, but when regulators give Alli the go-ahead, it will certainly start guiding them towards considering the product.

Public Citizen has put GSK on notice that its marketing techniques will be under scrutiny. The group wants Xenical banned.

Most of all, though, Mr Burton needs users to get to know how Alli works and how to use it in order to reduce the likelihood of unpleasant side-effects. He thinks that is done better through online discussions.

“If you don’t stay with the program, you’re at risk for things like having to go to the restroom more frequently. We don’t want people to be surprised,” he says.

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