Manager of Diet Clinic Arrested Over Pill Sales

Times Staff Writer

The manager of a Mission Viejo weight-loss clinic has been arrested for allegedly selling up to $5,000 a day in prescription diet pills using the license of a doctor who retired four years ago, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said Monday.

Susanna Marie Earnest, 40, who managed Medical Weight Loss of Mission Viejo, was arrested Wednesday by investigators of the sheriff's narcotics detail who worked with the state Medical Board in the investigation.

Investigators also seized more than 9,000 prescription diet pills, bank accounts containing more than $50,000 and $10,000 in cash at the clinic and at the San Diego home of the clinic's owner, said Jim Amormino, a sheriff's spokesman.

Neither the doctor nor the owner was identified because the investigation is ongoing.

Investigators allege that Earnest used the retired doctor's license to buy controlled substances from pharmaceutical companies that were then sold to the clinic's 300 clients.

The pills typically cost $1 each, but investigators suspect the clinic marked up the price.

Sales at the clinic appear to have been limited to existing clients, since no new clients were accepted to the clinic's weight-loss program after the doctor's retirement, Amormino said.

Phentermine is one of the most common drugs that doctors prescribe for weight loss, said Greg Thompson, director of the Los Angeles Regional Drug Information Center and an associate professor at the USC School of Pharmacy. He said however, studies show that phentermine suppresses the appetite for a week or two but that then hunger pangs return.

"It has been proven not to work," he said. "Weight loss from these products is nil."

In combination with fenfluramine, phentermine made up the weight-loss drug fen-phen. Fenfluramine was recalled in 1997 after reports it caused heart-valve problems, but phentermine remained on the market.

The amphetamine-like product makes people more alert and causes blood pressure to rise and the heart to beat faster, Thompson said.

Physicians routinely see obese patients on phentermine monthly to check for signs of adverse effects, said Dr. James Strebig, a member of the Orange County Medical Assn. whose specialty is internal medicine.

Strebig said that in some patients, phentermine can cause chest pains, pressure in the lungs and shortness of breath.

On Friday, sheriff's investigators with a search warrant examined the owner's residence in San Diego, where 6,000 prescription pills were found.

The clinic manager -- the only person arrested in the case -- is being held on charges of possessing prescription diet pills for sale, possessing a controlled substance for sale and practicing medicine without a license. But there could be more arrests, Amormino said. Phentermine is also sold under the names Adipex and Fastin.


Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.

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