Capitalizing on America’s childhood obesity problem

Moving to grow sales in a new market, Allergan is asking the Food & Drug Administration to approve the LAP-BAND stomach band surgical procedure for obese children as young as 14.

LAP-BAND is a silicone ring – “much like a belt” – that is implanted in the upper parts of the stomach to reduce capacity to take in food.  Clinical trials on teenage patients are underway as Allergan positions LAP-BAND as a less intrusive surgery than gastric bypass to treat the growing number of overweight youths and prevent obesity-related health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and bone and joint problems.

“We’ve identified a significant need with this patient population in terms of the increasing rate of obesity in younger populations. Obesity, if left untreated, correlates to life-threatening diseases,” Cathy Taylor, a spokeswoman for Allergan, told the Los Angeles Times.

According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity in United States has tripled in the past 30 years. As of 2008, nearly 20% of Americans under the age of 19 qualified as obese, having “BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.” In light of this trend, Allergan stands to profit handsomely if the FDA approves LAP-BAND for teens. After all, the California-based company has earned billions pandering to people’s vanities with its Botox anti-wrinkle injections, Juvederm skin fillers, and Latisse eyelash growth treatment. Obese teens battling low self-esteem could be an impressionable and profitable market for LAP-BAND.

Remember the LAP-BAND commercials on television, highway billboards, or online? If not, here’s an example from the Weight Loss Center:

Ad transcript:

“If you need to lose 50 pounds or more, the LAP-BAND can save your life. Tami lost 85 pounds and is now a size 6! Duane lost 115 pounds and is now coaching Little League! Michele lost 132 pounds, reversing her diabetes and high blood pressure. The LAP-BAND is the safest approved weight loss procedure available! Let your new life begin. Call 1800-Get-Slim. The LAP-BAND is covered by most PPO health insurance. Call 1800-Get-Slim now for your free insurance verification.”

Doesn’t it sound like Tami, Duane, and Michele lost weight with LAP-BAND without having to do the hard work of diet or exercise? Now imagine impressionable teenagers being bombarded with similar commercials that tout LAP-BAND as an easy, safe solution for obesity.

Detracting focus on root causes of childhood obesity

The allure of LAP-BAND detracts focus from addressing the underlying causes of childhood obesity. While genetics can play a role in weight gain, the huge spike in childhood obesity cannot be blamed on genetics alone. The more likely cause is the accumulation of unhealthy choices over time. American children are eating an excess of unhealthy food high in fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium while leading more sedentary lives in front of the television or the computer.

The good news is that an unhealthy lifestyle can be changed, but it starts with making healthy choices day in and day out. This can mean eating less junk food, drinking less soda and sugary beverages, spending less time indoors in front of electronic entertainment devices, eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, getting more exercise at home and in school.

Just as weight gains are built up through choices over time, weight loss can be achieved through meeting, exceeding and building on small goals that make a big difference over time. The caveat, however, is that switching to a healthier lifestyle requires self-control, commitment, patience, and responsibility. This requires work on the part of the child, the parents, and the community, and it’s a hard sell considering the slick marketing behind LAP-BAND. Why bother with diet and exercise when the problem can be fixed with a $20,000+ minimally-invasive surgery?

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for surgical procedures like LAP-BAND and gastric bypass. For severely obese patients who have reached a critical tipping point, these drastic procedures are the only options to save their lives. But bariatric surgeries should be considered as a last resort. Although pharmaceutical companies do pay lip service to diet and exercise, they are motivated by profits. Where there is money to be made, pharmaceutical companies will do what they have to do to sell, sell, sell.

Capitalizing on children’s health epidemic?

One way to selling more is to expand or find new markets for the product. The FDA regulates the eligibility requirements for recipients of medical devices. When LAP-BAND was first approved in 2001, the FDA restricted the use of the device for severely obese individuals with a BMI of 40. Relaxing FDA standards means more people would qualify for LAP-BAND, which translates to more sales and higher profits. Allergan scored a significant victory in February when the FDA approved expanding the use of LAP-BAND for obese individuals with “a BMI of 30 to 34 who also have an existing condition related to their obesity.”  Clinical trials are underway for teenage patients while Allergan seeks FDA approval to lift the age restrictions, which would enlarge the market for the LAP-BAND device. Allergan’s business strategy is to capitalize on a children’s health epidemic that is largely preventable and treatable through lifestyle changes.


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Here are some organizations working to promote healthier eating and exercise to prevent childhood obesity:


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