Alli’s Folly

reagan alli1s Allis Folly“There’s so much pressure to look a certain way in New York,” said Adrienne Zweil, a 34-year-old Upper West Sider who was standing in Union Square outside an elaborate marketing pavilion for the new diet drug Alli (pronounced “ally”) the other day.

Alli, which will be released by GlaxoSmithKline on June 15, is the first over-the-counter diet drug with F.D.A.-approved weight-loss claims. It’s essentially a half-dose of Xenical, the Roche prescription drug that has been available since 1999. The active ingredient, 60 milligrams of orlistat, traps about a quarter of the fat one eats in the intestines. Side effects can include “loose or more frequent stools, an urgent need to go to the bathroom, or gas with an oily discharge,” according to the marketing literature. So much for those tight white cigarette pants, ladies!

“The excess fat that passes out of your body isn’t harmful, but you should be prepared for the possibility of it happening,” cautioned a book, Are You Losing It?, that GlaxoSmithKline was distributing, Dianetics-like, at the pavilion. “In fact, you may recognize it as something that looks like the oil on top of a pizza.”

“In a sense, it’s like giving you diarrhea, basically,” said Dr. Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University. “By increasing the amount of fat that is in the gastrointestinal tract, you might actually suppress the desire to eat. Another possibility—and they’re not mutually exclusive—is that the individual will feel sick to their stomach as a result of having this extra fat in the bowel.”

Orlistat is eerily reminiscent of Olestra, the food additive that Frito-Lay used in its Wow! potato chips in the 1990’s. Alas, Wow! turned into more of an Eww! The makers of Alli seem determined to head off this fate, spending more than $150 million in the first year for TV, online and print ads, direct mail, pamphlets and multimedia displays like the one in Union Square.

“Are you over the age of 18?” said a large male representative guarding the velvet ropes of the air-conditioned “Alli experience” that had been erected in a former savings-bank building.

Visitors proceeded through a dizzying kaleidoscope of headlines and slogans from pharmaceutical competitors, like “drop a dress size by Saturday” and “120 pounds in two weeks,” which Alli was displaying as if to mock them. Alli’s counter-slogans: “Your will, our power” and “The revolution starts here, a pill, a plan, and you.”

When asked about the drug’s uncomfortable side effects, a brown-haired, middle-aged Alli representative insisted that they would only affect people who “abused” the product and didn’t keep to a low-fat diet, with about 15 grams of fat per meal. She gestured toward a display of fake plastic meals arranged on white plates inside a plastic bubble: low-fat waffles, a baked potato sprinkled with Play-Doh-like cheese.

After visitors passed through a “stock your kitchen for success” display festooned with fruits and veggies, they received a goodie bag.

“They’re marketing it in exactly the right way, in a very ethical and appropriate manner,” said Dr. Lee Kaplan, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Weight Center. “They’re saying, ‘This isn’t a cure, but this is a way to alter your lifestyle.’”

GlaxoSmithKline is using a variation of the campaign they used in 1996, when Nicorette chewing gum and Nicoderm skin patches switched from prescription to over-the-counter availability. But Dr. Kaplan wasn’t sure it would work this time.

“It’s a pretty safe drug,” he said of Alli, “but at best it works like Xenical—and Xenical doesn’t work very well.” (Sales of Xenical peaked at $750 million worldwide, but have dipped to about $500 million, with most of that outside the U.S.) “Why would it do better when you sell it in the front of the drugstore instead of the back of the drugstore?”

New Yorkers seemed similarly skeptical. “I think the marketing is way over-the-top,” said Jasmine Luiz, 26, a blond, model-thin Lower East Sider in a summer dress and sunglasses who had submitted to the Alli experience. “I think it’s almost insulting to our intelligence. I mean, if you’re eating a good diet and exercising, you don’t need this … pill.”

Her friend, Meaghan Sullivan, a 28-year-old lass from Prospect Heights with curly brown hair and an average build, was skeptically examining an Alli-distributed “pizza box” containing a plastic pedometer.

“I want pizza, not this dumb thing,” said Ms. Sullivan, holding up the pedometer like a smelly sock. On the box was some coy “nutritional information”: “Calories Per Slice: A Whole Lot. Fat Grams Per Slice: More Than You Want to Know. Probably Going Straight To: Your Hips.”

“What the fuck! That’s so messed up for them to say,” Ms. Sullivan said. “I can have a slice of pizza if I want to; that’s my right as an American—as a New-fucking-Yorker. And it’s not going ‘straight to my hips.’ It’s going in my belly.”