Big Pharma Hopes to Make a Diet-Pill Killing

By Sarah Beller 12/26/12

New weight-loss drugs are about to hit the market. But fears about potential side effects remain.

The anti-obesity pill Belviq. Photo via

With Christmas gorging inevitably leading to New Year's dieting resolutions, Big Pharma is moving into position to profit. After years of fighting pressure from healthcare specialists and dodging industry setbacks, several drug companies are hoping to capitalize on the growing trend of the "obesity epidemic" through selling prescription weight-loss drugs. Last fall, the Califonia-based biotech company Vivus launched Qsymia—the first weight-loss drug to receive US regulatory approval in 13 years. In the next few weeks, Arena, another West coast biotech, is set to launch the drug Belviq. And a third company, Orexigen, is preparing to re-apply for regulatory approval for the its drug Contrave after a series of previous rejections.

Healthcare specialists have historically viewed weight loss drugs with suspicion both because of limited efficacy and risky side effects. Qsymia's weight loss impact is slightly more than 10% and Belviq's less than 6%—and that's when they're tested in ideal conditions with strict medical supervision. Meanwhile, Wyeth, now part of Pfizer, is still fighting claims of heart-valve defects and other problems linked to Fen-Phen: its diet-drug combo, withdrawn in 1997, for which it earmarked $21 billion to cover settlements. Regulators subsequently pulled Abbott's drug Meridia, which was linked to suicidal feelings. Peter Tam, president of Vivus, suggests that recent high-level scientific meetings and public discussion about obesity led by Michelle Obama may be ushering in a more receptive attitude to weight-loss drugs. But safety concerns linger: Sidney Wolfe, head of the health research group at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group that has fought against the approval of the new drugs, wrote recently: "Obesity is unquestionably a serous public health concern, but that doesn't give the FDA license to ignore the scientific evidence."

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Sarah Beller is a writer and the Executive Director at Filter. She has written about drug policy with a focus on harm reduction for Substance.comThe Fix and Salon. She has worked as a social worker with formerly incarcerated people in New York for a number of years. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’sThe HairpinThe ToastReductressThe Rumpus and other publications. You can find Sarah on Linkedin and Twitter.