Drug Marketing: Weed leads to weight loss drug

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A drug that has roots in the hunger effect that results from smoking marijuana could be a coup for French pharmaceutical marketer Sanofi-Synthelabo and a much-needed boost for consumers looking to lose weight.

The drug, still in development and known by its generic name rimonabant, may block natural chemicals similar to the ones that cause hunger when marijuana is used, thus acting as an appetite suppressant.

The drug won't hit the market until perhaps 2004-if at all. But if it proves a hit, it could generate considerable spending in direct-to-consumer advertising.

As Sanofi conducts tests to gauge the drug's effectiveness, a person familiar with the matter said it is searching for an agency to help craft a marketing message. A decision is expected this month on a U.S. agency for professional and likely consumer communications. The list of contenders could not be determined.

Some products in the category have either faced safety concerns or failed to live up to sales expectations. Hoffmann-La Roche's struggle to make Xenical, billed as a superior weight-loss drug when launched in 1999, a blockbuster is well documented. It saw a decline in U.S. sales from $295.2 million in 2000 to $243.4 million in 2001, according to NCHealth. Abbott Laboratories' Meridia has seen sales increase from $116.5 million in 2000 to $166.5 million in 2001, but the consumer group Public Citizen has complained about the product's safety.

During its advertising peak in 1999, Xenical received $76 million in measured ad spending, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Meridia, then marketed by Knoll Pharmaceutical Co., topped out at $65 million in measured ad spending in 2000.

A spokeswoman in the U.S. for Sanofi was not available to comment.

If beneficial efficacy data and/or a unique selling point fail to emerge, Sanofi may decide not to proceed with seeking marketing approval, said the person close to the matter. "You can see it now," the person said. "They're going to come and say, `We've got a new obesity drug,' and the first thing the financial people are going to say is, `Are you going to fail like everybody else?' I think they want to have something very solid."

Fast Facts

Marketer: SanofiSynthelabo

Drug: Rimonabant

What it does: Appetite suppresant

Possible launch: 2004

Agency decision: This month

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