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Obesity Drugs Won’t Solve Our Billion-Person Problem, WHO Warns

Obesity has quadrupled among children and teens and more than doubled among adults since 1990.

Effective, popular obesity medications won’t be enough to solve a worldwide problem that now affects more than 1 billion people, World Health Organization officials warned. 

Obesity has quadrupled among children and teens and more than doubled among adults since 1990, with about one in every eight people in the world living with the condition, the health agency said Thursday in the first global public analysis of the condition since 2017. 

While rates of obesity have leveled off in some wealthy countries – particularly in Europe – the research team found rapid increases in low- and middle-income countries. The problem of low weight due to malnourishment has been replaced by obesity as a leading issue in many nations, the team said, in a study published in The Lancet. 

New obesity drugs such as Novo Nordisk A/S’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly & Co.’s Zepbound could be an $80 billion market by 2030. However, they will probably contribute to the growing problem of inequality around weight-loss treatment, said Majid Ezzati, a professor of global environmental health at Imperial College London and the senior author of the study. 

“These drugs are definitely an important tool, but they should not be seen as a solution to the problem,” said Francesco Branca, director of the department of nutrition and food safety at WHO, who was also a co-author of the study. “The solution is still the transformation of food systems and the environment.” 

WHO member states in 2022 adopted an obesity response plan that includes a broad range of proposed policy changes, including promoting breastfeeding, restrictions on marketing unhealthy food and drinks to children, nutrition labeling and physical activity standards for schools. Climate change, war and disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic may drive the cost of healthy food higher and lead to even higher rates of both obesity and underweight, said Guha Pradeepa, a study co-author from the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation.

WHO researchers worked on the study with the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, a worldwide network of scientists that provides data on non-communicable diseases like obesity. 

To get a comprehensive picture of the rate of obesity around the world, more than 1,500 researchers surveyed weight and height from more than 220 million people across more than 190 countries. Obesity was classified as a BMI of 30 or over in adults and was measured on a sliding scale depending on weight and age in children. They found that more than 879 million adults and 159 million children probably had obesity in 2022.

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