One of the benefits of having the Carlat World Headquarters here in beautiful Newburyport, Massachusetts is that we get to work next door to an iconic antiques barn called Oldies. It's a wonderful stockpile of odds and ends that range from decommissioned lobster traps to faded movie posters.
The other day I came across an old issue of LIFE Magazine with a cover story on “The Dangerous Diet Pills: How Millions of Women are Risking their Health with Fat Doctors.” The date? January 26, 1968, which was smack dab in the middle of the amphetamine epidemic that prompted Congress to pass the bill creating our current system of scheduled, and controlled medications.
What, if anything, does this issue of LIFE teach us about the potential dangers of Vyvanse’s recent approval for binged eating disorder? This “exclusive report” was based on investigative journalist Susan McBee’s undercover visits to 10 “fat doctors.” She was given cursory exams and, although she was not overweight (5’5”, 125 pounds), virtually every physician prescribed her various pills, including amphetamines, barbituates, sex hormones, and diuretics. One office insisted she pay cash--no personal checks--in order to receive the pills.
How is this nearly 50-year-old article relevant to the age of Vyvanse? This was a story of unscrupulous doctors running pill mills for women who wanted to lose weight. The diagnostic process--if there was one--was sloppy and all-inclusive. If you came to one of these doctors requesting amphetamine, you were assured of getting a script, regardless of your diagnosis.
As a recent New York Times article shows, history is repeating itself. The Affordable Care Act has a provision requiring coverage of obesity treatment, and doctors are taking advantage of this by opening chains of lucrative weight loss clinics. Some are selling medications directly to patients, such as phentermine, which, like Vyvanse, is an stimulant.
It seems only a matter a time before Vyvanse pops up in the menu of options for patients being seen by the new breed of diet doctors.
Don't get me wrong--Vyvanse is effective for binge eating disorder, as we discussed in our recent CME article (subscribers to The Carlat Psychiatry Report can read it here).
If a patient came to me and said, “Doctor, I’ve heard about Vyvanse for binge eating, and I’d like to try it,” I would carefully ask about their eating habits in order to establish an actual pattern of binge eating. But what if the patient was more of a grazer than a binger? What if I sensed that the patient was simply looking for a weight loss drug and had no binge eating problem at all? I wouldn't prescribe a drug that has a high risk of abuse and diversion.
As was true in 1968, doctors are free to prescribe meds for indications not approved by the FDA. I predict that many women (and men) will be asking for Vyvanse to lose weight, and will walk away with the prescription, whether or not they have BED.
It's been nearly a half century since the LIFE article, and we're still prescribing speed for weight loss Let’s not let it get out of hand.