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New diet drugs' sales weighed down

Monday - 7/22/2013, 4:29am  ET

belviq.jpg
Belviq is one of two recent weight loss drugs in the U.S. - but neither are making big waves. (Belviq.com)

WASHINGTON - We are a nation of dieters, but it seems we haven't developed much of a taste for diet drugs.

Two new weight loss medications have hit the market within the last year: Qsymia went on sale last September, and Belviq followed last month.

They are the first new diet drugs in 13 years, but neither has shown signs of becoming a blockbuster drug for the pharmaceutical industry.

These two drugs face some major obstacles, as do other weight loss medications currently under development.

Dr. Jason Wexler, an endocrinologist at Medstar Washington Hospital Center, says many patients are hesitant to try them because earlier diet drugs had some big safety issues. Two drugs used as part of the popular fen-phen combination were taken off the market in 1997 following evidence that they caused heart-valve problems. And in 2010, Meridia was pulled after it was linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

So far, there have been no reports of major problems with the two new drugs. But Wexler believes many people are watching and waiting for them to build a long-term safety record.

He says that these medication have another problem: They're expensive, and many insurance companies do not cover them, or charge a high co-payment. "Many people are simply not able to afford them," Wexler says.

They can run anywhere from roughly $150 to $200 a month for those who must pay out of pocket, and the benefits are relatively modest. Various trials and studies indicate they can help patients lose about 5 percent or so of their starting weight when combined with diet or exercise.

These drugs are not for people who need to lose a few pounds, but who are either obese or overweight with related health issues.

"People who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes as a result of their being overweight, even though they may not be morbidly obese, may still be good candidates for medication like this," says Wexler.

The American Medical Association recently declared obesity a disease. Wexler says that move could eventually prompt more insurance companies to consider coverage for weight-loss drugs, and might lead pharmaceutical manufacturers to step up development of new and improved medications.

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