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Anti-obesity drug Meridia to weigh in at stores soon

Dieters still smarting from the recall of the popular "fen-phen" drugs last year can take heart - a new anti-obesity drug will appear in stores this week.

Hopes are high that Meridia, the new product from Knoll Pharmaceutical Co., will become the dominant diet drug. With one in three Americans overweight, the potential market is enormous.Meridia is the first prescription anti-obesity drug to hit the market since American Home Products Corp. recalled Redux and fen-flur-a-mine - half of the popular "fen-phen" diet cocktail. Federal regulators requested the recall after linking the drugs with potentially fatal heart valve damage.

Knoll said the drug's global sales could reach $500 million a year. Some analysts say it could far exceed that number, once the drug hits most stores by mid-March.

Doctors at Nutri/System, a chain of diet clinics with 100,000 clients, will start writing prescriptions "as soon as it's in drugstores," said Brian Haveson, the company's president.

Knoll has begun a marketing pitch saying the drug is very different from the drugs pulled in August. The company says it will try to keep casual dieters from using it for cosmetic slimming.

"We are reaching out to doctors to partner with them to ensure that Meridia is used on the right patients, in the right way, for the right reasons," Knoll marketing head Steve Freeman said Thursday.

Older diet drugs are still available and Pfizer Inc. and Roche Laboratories are working on more. But the recall left seriously obese people with no satisfactory options, said Morgan Downey, executive director of the American Obe-sity Association.