Will These New Weight Loss Drugs Save Lives and Change Attitudes?


Sketchy diet pills? So ’90s. For the first time in over a decade, the FDA has approved two new weight loss drugs: Qysmia and Belviq. According to writer and “infectious-disease specialist” Kent Sepkowitz, the drugs are cause for celebration, not just because of rising medical costs and obesity-related deaths but because the medication might “pull obesity out of the realm of moral failing and into the arid, less dramatic, but thankfully more reality-based, world of medical disease.”

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and around 112,000 people (see edit note below) die each year from obesity-related issues. Associated medical costs add up to around $147 billion annually. We can all agree that those statistics are troubling, but it’s not as easy to figure out a solution. Sepkowitz thinks the “public has reacted as usual to the alarming scope of the problem-with avoidance of the facts, finger-pointing, claims of misinterpretation,” but that pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers have “more productively” come up with some usable products that will improve peoples’ health, save the health-care system money and, he believes, change attitudes about obesity:

To control this particular epidemic, it is essential to leave the Sunday school view of obesity behind. Whatever mix of genetic, environmental, societal, economic, and psychological factors one sees as contributory, the facts are these: obesity is a serious and lethal medical condition.
Consigning obesity to the medical world places it on equal footing with other major American killers such as AIDS, cancer, and heart disease, and re-balances risk and benefit. In the world of science, numbers and tests and clinical trials are the coin of the realm, not tips on how to resist that extra slice of cake. Obesity isn’t sketchy, it’s a disease. Only here, free from sermons and bromides, can real progress to control obesity be made.

While the new drugs sound promising in a simple sense (assuming, as Sepkowitz somewhat blithely notes, “there isn’t a curveball side effect waiting to emerge” — um, yes, let’s hope not), the obesity epidemic isn’t so black and white. There are lots of different factors that contribute to weight issues — genetic, psychological, socioeconomic, etc. — and not all of them can be solved with a pill.

Edit: The piece originally stated that “obesity is associated with 300,000 excess deaths a year,” a statistic Sepkowitz took from a study that was published in 2005. In 2007, the same authors revised that number down to 112,000, and noted that “Obesity was associated with significantly increased CVD mortality (112 159 excess deaths; 95% CI, 87 842 to 136 476) but not associated with cancer mortality or with noncancer, non-CVD mortality.” (CVD = cardiovascular disease.) Thanks to Kate Harding for pointing that out!

New Diet Drugs Get Green Light Just as U.S. Obesity Epidemic Deepens [The Daily Beast]

Image via My Good Images/Shutterstock.

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