The FDA just approved Belviq, the first weight loss drug to get their green light in 13 years. The agency claims that its safety standards were set high (because of weight loss drugs’ sketchy history), but it’s hard to shake the feeling that their approval was made in the best interest of public health. In the war on obesity, the FDA just helped business score big time, but it’s hard to believe that consumers will benefit nearly so much.
For starters, Belviq, produced by Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc, is hardly risk-free: The drug is one of three that were previously rejected in their rush for approval back in 2010, due to potential cancer risks. Now, the FDA is concerned about increased heart attack risk; coincidentally, the same concerns that got weight loss pills “fen-phen” and Meridia pulled from the market in 1997 and 2010, respectively.
Risks aside, the effectiveness of the drug isn’t all that encouraging, either. Known chemically as lorcaserin, Belviq is designed to suppress appetite. In clinical trials, treatment with Belviq was associated with an average weight loss of 3%-3.7% of total body weight compared to a placebo. Available only to obese adults (those with a BMI of 30 or higher), or overweight adults (with a BMI of 27 or higher) who also have at least one weight-related health condition (like high blood pressure, cholesterol, or type 2 diabetes), it sounds far from a panacea.
Janet Woodcock, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, explained in an official statement that their decision was directly related to the country’s growing problem with obesity:
Obesity threatens the overall well being of patients and is a major public health concern. The approval of this drug, used responsibly in combination with a healthy diet and lifestyle, provides a treatment option for Americans who are obese or are overweight and have at least one weight-related comorbid condition.
But given the drug’s apparent efficacy, it’s hard to believe that the drug will do much more than make a lot of money for Arena Pharmaceuticals, whose shares were up 28.7 percent at $11.39 at today’s close, and were the most-traded stock options on the market following today’s announcement, putting them ahead of even Apple Inc.
While the FDA is endorsing the drug “as an addition to a reduced-calorie diet and exercise” to manage chronic weight problems, the reality is that their approval is, if anything, a step backwards in the war on obesity,when doctors, public health officials, and the food industry are still failing to find ways to successfully support long-term adoption of a healthier diet and lifestyle.