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Diet drugs make a comeback

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Kai Ryssdal: Any chance you remember the last time a weight-loss drug was sold with the Food and Drug Administration’s seal of approval? ‘Cause I sure don’t.

It’s been well more than a decade now since there’s been one on the market. Fifteen years, actually, since Fen-Phen was pulled. But there are currently three new anti-obesity treatments trying to get the FDA’s OK. One of them just got a thumbs up from an advisory panel.

Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports on how things have changed the past decade and a half.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer: About two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Those extra pounds cause a lot of health problems. 

Jerry Katz:  Diabetes, heart disease, stroke. You name the big three and they’re intimately related to being overweight.

Jerry Katz is a health care consultant in Philadelphia. He says those chronic conditions are expensive to treat. In fact, one-fifth of all health care spending is related to obesity.

Ken Thorpe is a healthcare economist at Emory University.  He says Medicare could save a fortune if overweight patients slimmed down.

Ken Thorpe: If you got something on the order of a 10 percent reduction in weight, there’s the potential that Medicare could save $30 billion to $40 billion over the next decade.

The potential market for the obesity drugs would also be huge. Several are in the pipeline. Lorcaserin got positive reviews yesterday from an FDA advisory committee.

But here’s the thing. Right now, most private insurance plans wouldn’t cover obesity drugs. Neither would Medicare.

Peter Pitts says that could change. He’s a former FDA official who now heads the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, which gets some money from drug companies.

Peter Pitts: So I think that a smart insurance provider will say we will reimburse for these products if you engage in healthier behavior.

Because, Pitts says, that’s the ultimate solution to the expensive obesity epidemic.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.

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