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Is obesity a disease? The growing market for new treatments


Obesity is a big problem in the developed world, and it’s growing. The amount of money spent on treatment and prevention is also growing, creating a huge incentive for the life sciences industry to accelerate the development of new drugs and medical devices in this area.

As the AMA joins a growing list of healthcare groups that classify obesity as a disease, there is more support than ever for the view that the healthcare sector ought to provide a solution.

The scale of the problem

The World Health Organization classifies people with a body mass index above 25 as being overweight, and above 30 as being obese. By this measure, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese.

While obesity is commonly thought of as an American problem, other developed nations are not far behind. This interactive map shows that obesity is also a widespread and growing problem in Europe.

Treating obesity as a disease

Common sense used to dictate that obesity was simply the result of overeating. If it was a problem at all, it was a personal problem, not a medical one.

But a number of scientific studies have found that genes affecting metabolism, appetite and the absorption of fat also play a role in determining a person’s body mass index, and the common sense view is changing.

The survey results summarized in this chart suggest that while the American public still thinks it’s mostly up to individuals to address the problem of obesity, they also look to their government and the healthcare industry for an answer.

Richard L Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences sums up the current state of medical research in this way:

The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible.

The American Medical Association now agrees, taking the symbolically important step of officially classifying obesity as a disease. In a statement, AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris said that the move would …help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue.

The AMA joins a growing number of medical and health advocacy organizations to classify obesity as a medical problem rather than a lifestyle choice, and it could have a real impact on the way the life sciences industry treats the problem.

The growing marketplace for obesity treatments

Morgan Downey, an activist and publisher of the Downey Obesity Report sees the decision from the AMA as an encouragement for the life sciences industry to step into the marketplace:

I think you will probably see from this physicians taking obesity more seriously, counseling their patients about it. Companies marketing the products will be able to take this to physicians and point to it and say, ‘Look, the mother ship has now recognized obesity as a disease.

With the AMA now on board, market access and reimbursement discussions for new obesity treatments will receive a shot in the arm. Poor reimbursement in particular has been blamed for the underwhelming performance of Vivus’s drug Qsymia.

Growing recognition of obesity as a treatable disease is part of the reason why we can expect to see a larger number of treatments being developed and marketed to doctors and healthcare professionals.

Another reason is the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare’s healthcare marketplace is now open for business, and an increasing number of insurance plans are expected to start covering the cost of treatments that had not been covered before. As well as drugs and medical procedures, these include therapeutic measures such as exercise and diet counseling.

The new act provides incentives for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to discuss and take part in weight loss programs provided by primary care physicians. It also allows employers to increase the health insurance contributions of obese employees by 30-50%, if they refuse to take part in a wellness program. Obamacare even funds community programs for weight loss.

The human and economic cost of obesity

The effects of the obesity epidemic sweeping the developed world are far reaching and severe. According to scientist and political commentator Jeff Schweitzer, adult obesity-related problems are expected to cost the American economy up to $150 billion per year.

This chart indicates that in the U.S, spending on obesity has increased dramatically in the last decade.

Although drugs, devices and procedures do exist, they are still rare. Partly because there has been a lack of medical research into the causes of obesity, the increased spending observed in this chart is attributable to the costs generated from treating the effects. Obesity causes an increased risk in adulthood for joint problems, high blood pressure, strokes, angina, heart attacks and type 2 diabetes.

As obesity is now widespread in developed economies, there is a huge market for new interventions to reduce weight, and the investment potential is not lacking.

Attitudes towards the causes of obesity are changing. Pharma, medical device and diagnostics companies now have the opportunity to make a difference.