New obesity drug may cost NHS more than Viagra

AN ANTI-OBESITY drug launched yesterday could cost the NHS at least pounds 200m a year - more than the impotence treatment Viagra.

But doctors said that the cost of failing to tackle obesity was the spiralling increase in cases of diabetes, heart disease, strokes and some cancers.

Xenical is the first anti- obesity drug to block the digestion of fat in the gut as opposed to suppressing appetite.

But Roche, the manufacturer of the drug, said it would work only as part of a carefully controlled fat-reducing diet. Only patients who prove their determination to tackle their weight would be allowed on the programme.

In Britain, where 16 per cent of men and 17 per cent of women are termed clinically obese, figures are likely to rise to 18 per cent and 24 per cent respectively by 2005.

Vic Ackerman, general manager of Roche UK, said yesterday that the drug might be appropriate for use in up to 5 per cent of obesity cases - first and foremost those where excess weight was already causing health problems.

At pounds 1.50 a day per patient, that would cost more than pounds 200m a year, compared with the Government's estimate of pounds 150m for Viagra.

But trials had shown that a typical 10 per cent weight loss in obese patients on Xenical brought health benefits, even though they were still overweight.

The drug is currently licensed for use for up to two years, but doctors suggested it might one day be a long-term treatment just as some people spend their lives on drugs forother conditions.

Professor Gareth Williams, an honorary consultant in Liverpool, said obesity was a serious medical problem that had been the Cinderella of medical specialties. "There is no such thing as a miracle drug for obesity," he said. "But we're now being given the tools to be able to do something about it."

Dr Nick Finer, a consultant endocrinologist, said there was a very high failure rate for persuading people to change their diet and lifestyle behaviour.

"There is a desperate need to be able to offer patients successful intervention that leads to long-term success in treating clinical obesity," he said.

One of the benefits of the Xenical treatment was that if patients failed to cut the fat in their diet, they suffered severe diarrhoea and bad wind. These side-effects had proved helpful in changing behaviour.

In trials, patients using the drug in conjunction with a mildly reduced calorie diet lost about 70 per cent more weight and were twice as likely to keep that weight off over two years compared with diet alone.

At the launch yesterday, Dr Susan Jebb, an obesity researcher, said the "Americanisation" of our eating habits through larger portions was partly to blame for the rising number of overweight Britons.

However, obesity does run in families, so certain individuals have a genetic predisposition towards being fat.

Five per cent of healthcare spending stems from obesity and its associated health risks, according to figures provided at yesterday's Xenical launch. In the United States, the figure is 9 per cent.

t You are clinically obese if your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in metres is equal to or greater than 30. A normal Body Mass Index (BMI) is between 18.5 and 24.9.

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