The first lady is getting kids to move; Rachael Ray is bringing more fruit, vegetables and whole grains to school cafeterias; and the NFL is asking kids to spend an hour each day doing what they do best — playing.

All across America, campaigns to combat obesity with more exercise and smarter eating habits are targeting our nation’s young people. But while children’s weight problems threaten our nation’s future, obesity is actually a serious problem among Americans ages 45 to 64. How should our nation help adults control their weight and avert the serious consequences of obesity?

The challenge of obesity is far more complex than most people understand. That is why recent research has learned that, together with diet, exercise and lifestyle changes, drug therapies may help disciplined and motivated patients lose significant weight and possibly keep it off. Of course, diet and exercise are essential. Drug therapy can be a supplement, not a substitute, for healthier habits.

But will new obesity drugs be approved? And if so, when? The FDA must authorize any medical products sold in the United States, and the FDA has been extremely cautious about approving obesity drugs in order to assure the public’s safety.

Make no mistake: Obesity is America’s most urgent health crisis. More than half of adult Americans are overweight, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-third are obese. Obesity puts people at risk of health problems, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, liver and gallbladder disease, and cancer of the breast, colon, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, thyroid, ovary, cervix and prostate.

Moreover, obesity threatens the nation’s fiscal as well as physical fitness. The CDC estimates that medical costs associated with obesity amount to about $150 billion a year. For an obese individual, the lifetime medical costs resulting from weight problems are around $10,000 higher than among the non-obese. But, according to a study conducted by Stanford University and the RAND Corp., even a modest 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in body weight can save someone between $2,200 and $5,500 in lifetime medical costs.

While obesity is expanding Americans’ waistlines, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the problem. There is a critical need for a full range of remedies to help prevent overweight adults from becoming morbidly obese and developing associated health conditions that are difficult and costly to treat.

Even with the best intentions to eat smarter and exercise more, these middle-aged people have a hard time losing weight and keeping it off. In fact, American Psychologist’s 2007 study, “Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity: Diets Are Not the Answer,” reported “one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lose on their diets.”

As other articles in medical journals have reported, the problem isn’t only a lack of willpower among mature adults but rather an inherent tendency in the human body to try to regain the pounds that are lost.

Nationally, the increased disease and economic burden secondary to obesity cry out for other treatment options to include pharmacologic therapy for appropriately selected patients. Encouraging pharmacologic research for obesity coupled with accelerated drug development and translation to market are in the best interest of our nation.

Richard Carmona was surgeon general of the United States from 2002 to 2006. This essay was distributed by MCT Information Services.

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