A changing battlefield in the fight against fat

The nation’s war on obesity, which has included everything from plans to introduce higher prices on airline seats for obese passengers to outright bans on sugary sodas, just took a new turn this week, with the American Medical Association (AMA) clarifying that obesity is now a “disease” rather than a condition or lifestyle choice. That may seem like a semantic to some, but it could have a significant impact on technological innovation as it relates to obesity.

Obesity counseling has varying degrees of success in the workplace. (bigstock)
The balance may be shifting when it comes to innovation around obesity. (bigstock)

Let’s start with the biotech industry, which has been agitating for the freedom to create new “fat-busting pills”. The FDA, however, has made it close to impossible to get any obesity drug approved. Many of these pills work by attacking mechanisms in the body thought to control hunger, making weight loss possible. But, like other medications, they can come with unwanted side effects ranging from uncomfortable to life-threatening. Some experts see the AMA re-classification as putting pressure on the FDA to relax some of its stringent approval guidelines. In 2012, the FDA made headlines by sanctioning the first weight-loss pill in over a decade and now there could be more on the way, especially if the big pharmaceutical giants re-start their pipelines for obesity drugs.

Another area that might see a boost from the new AMA stance on obesity is genetics. Researchers are working hard to find and then isolate the genetic markers thought to code for obesity. By taking genetic tests at an early age, for example, you would have advance notice if your body is genetically inclined towards obesity and start taking corrective steps. In the future, it may even be possible to create gene therapy treatments that result in less weight gain and higher activity levels in patients shown to be genetically-predisposed to obesity.

Which is not to say that the new classification by the AMA will result in a wave of immediate results. First of all, the AMA classification is not legally binding, so a health insurer would still have the right (theoretically) to reject coverage for a treatment or procedure. Even doctors within the AMA are divided over whether obesity should be considered a disease, with some stating that there’s still no causality that obesity is quite the beast it’s supposed to be. And, there’s the question of whether a flood of new products to the market will do anything to reduce America’s obesity epidemic.

At the very least, though, the AMA’s changing stance could help get health insurers onboard with the idea of covering medical costs associated with obesity. Now that obesity has been labeled a chronic disease, it will give insurance companies less wiggle room to get out of paying for things such as obesity treatment, counseling and (in extreme cases) surgery. It should also make the cost of research and development of “fat-busting pills” or gene therapy treatments more affordable if insurers help to subsidize their costs.

Until now, very little has worked to solve America’s obesity problem. Education programs have raised awareness about the long-term health risks of being obese but have done little to reverse the tide, with roughly 1 in 3 Americans affected by obesity. Instead of passing judgment — blaming people and then telling them to eat better and exercise more — we now have another option available to us: taking advantage of rapid advances in biotechnology and genetic research to create innovative solutions to one of this nation’s most far-reaching problems.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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