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An invitation to 'everlasting beauty'

The latest trend in age-defying treatments is Botox injections delivered at fancy parties.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2002


PARKLAND ESTATES -- The harpist wore a tea-length white gown. Servers in black bow ties passed out hors d'oeuvres on silver trays. Guests nibbled on salmon and asparagus spears.

Indeed, it was an elegant affair. Even by highfalutin South Tampa standards.

The main attraction? A little vial of poison.

About 40 people, mostly women, attended the recent "Botox party" at the Guggino Family Eye Center to learn more about the latest rage in age-defying treatments.

"It's survival of the prettiest," Dr. Dawn Bhasin told the group. "In our generation, we all want everlasting beauty."

Botox has been around for years but got a boost in April from the Food and Drug Administration, which okayed it for cosmetic use. Doctors inject it in the brow to relax the muscles that cause frown lines.

The FDA's approval prompted plastic surgeons and other doctors across the country to promote Botox as a safe and simple way to melt away the years. Botox parties emerged as the perfect marketing ploy.

The beauty bashes offer a casual, even festive, atmosphere for medically reducing the signs of age. In glamor cities such as New York and Los Angeles, doctors take their needles to private gatherings.

In Tampa, doctors hold soirees at their offices, although house parties are starting to pop up.

"The whole atmosphere really relaxes people, so they aren't worried about having the treatment," Bhasin said.

At Guggino's first Botox reception last month, Bhasin gave clients a 20-minute crash course on the ins and outs of Botox. In a video presentation, she outlined the uses and showed dramatic before and after photos.

"It's quite painless," she said. "It takes less than five minutes. You can go back to work, exercise or wash your face."

A Botox user herself, Bhasin, 34, gave her view ofsociety and its obsession with looks. Plain babies get less attention than beautiful babies, she said. Pretty people finish first. "It's how the world works."

Like most medical procedures, Botox isn't without risk. If injected too close to the eye, it can cause droopy eyelids. Possible side effects include bruising, swelling and nausea.

Made by Allergan, Botox is a strain of botulinum toxin, which can cause botulism, a type of food poisoning. When injected in diluted amounts with tiny needles, it paralyzes the nerve that controls muscles, softening wrinkle lines caused by facial expressions.

Patients start seeing results in three to seven days and reach the optimal effect at about a month. The treatment lasts about three to four months. Subsequent ones may last up to nine months because the muscles already are weak.

The procedure costs about $250 to $600 a pop, depending on the doctor and the size of the area treated. Guggino's charged $250 for a few shots in the brow and $450 for crow's-feet and forehead lines. Patients who brought a friend got a 20-percent discount.

No insurance covers the cost, she said.

Many chalk it up to the price of beauty. One person compared it to having a Louis Vuitton bag.

Botox believers say they do it for their emotional well-being. It bolsters confidence and lifts their spirits when they look in the mirror. And here's a biggie: no anesthesia or surgical knife.

"I've had a few people say that I look like I'm in my 30s," said Maggie Farley, who started using Botox two years ago at age 40. "That's kind of nice."

The majority of Botox users are women between ages 35 and 50, although the range is widening. At least one in 10 are men. Many do it to avoid scowling.

"After this, my mood matches my face," said Jo Apthorp, 58, while getting an injection this week.

Botox was first sold more than a decade ago to treat people with crossed eyes or eyelid spasms. Doctors quickly found out that it also worked on wrinkles.

Although Botox wasn't officially marketed for cosmetic use, more than 1.6-million procedures were performed nationwide last year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Hollywood stars have quietly used it for years.

The latest FDA approval was solely for brow furrows, but talks are under way to cover crow's-feet and forehead lines. Allergan also wants to market the drug for tension headaches and migraines, secondary benefits.

Some women use Botox to curb excessive underarm sweating. Missy Gordon, 35, used to travel to Los Angeles for injections to paralyze the glands that cause perspiration. Now, she can get it in Tampa for about $1,200 at Guggino's.

"It's worth it," she said. "It was hindering my lifestyle."

Botox parties can mean big bucks for doctors, who often make hundreds off each tiny vial. To attract customers, physicians send out invitations and advertise. A recent ad for a party at the Body Image Laser Institute said, "Go Back in Time."

Not everyone likes the idea. A growing number of doctors say parties trivialize a medical procedure and lessen the patient/doctor relationship. They particularly shun those at homes.

"I think with all due respect . . . that patients ought to be approached as though they are true patients not partygoers," said Dr. Frank Rieger, a plastic surgeon at the Hyde Park Cosmetic Surgery Center.

Rieger started using Botox regularly about six months ago after several patients inquired. He considers it a precursor for a more permanent procedure, such as a forehead lift or facelift. He also isn't keen on using a drug that only last a few months.

"Botox is a very temporary fix," he said. "It ought not be the end-all of what patients choose to do."

Medical insurance experts also caution against using Botox in a social setting, especially if alcohol is served. Group consent forms wouldn't hold up in court.

"Sudden, unforeseen problems and consequences . . . may surprise you," wrote Mark Gorney, medical director of the Doctors Company, a national, physician-owned malpractice insurer.

Many doctors are heeding the warning. Guggino's chose chai tea over champagne.

"You don't want people to sign a consent form if they've had alcohol," Bhasin said. "You want everyone to have a clear head."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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