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The Food and Drug Administration approved the weight-loss therapy Belviq from Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA ) in June 2012. It took nearly one year for the company to gain marketing approval, but Belviq's launch is finally within sight. The drug will join Qsymia from VIVUS (NASDAQ: VVUS ) in breaking the newly accessible obesity market wide open.
Investors and analysts are already imagining blockbuster potential for Belviq and Qsymia, and while the market is large enough for both drugs to do exceptionally well, I never really gave much thought to the statistics behind the obesity market. After looking into the facts, it is pretty clear that the market opportunity is enormous. Here is what I found.
- Approximately 35.7% of adults and 16.9% of children and adolescents in the United States are considered obese, according to the most recent figures. That means more than 90.5 million Americans are at increased risk of serious health conditions -- such as type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and stroke.
- The trend is not our friend, either. The figure for children and adolescent obesity represents an increase of 300% in the last 20 years.
- Obesity strained the nation's health care system to the tune of $190 billion at last count. Average annual medical costs were $1,429 more for obese individuals in 2008, or fully 3% of household income that year. That is also a 50% increase in health care costs compared to non-obese individuals.
- Although it maintains one of the lowest obesity rates in the country, New York ranked second in medical expenditures related to adult obesity in 2010. The state spent nearly $8 billion treating the condition, nearly 81% of which was picked up by Medicaid and Medicare. Just a reminder than obesity affects all of us.
- Every state in the country has obesity levels of at least 20%, or one in every five citizens. In 1996, no state had an obesity level above that threshold.
- Numbers from the last census show that the average household size is 2.83 (with a white picket fence and 0.87 dogs). So if someone in your home isn't battling obesity, then on average, one of your neighbors suffers from the condition.
- Similarly, in 2000, no state had an obesity rate of 30% or higher. Just 10 years later, 12 states -- mostly in the southern United States -- marched past that watermark.
- The slimmest state is Colorado, with an obesity rate of only 20.7%.
- The CDC maintains that only 48% of adults and less than 30% of high school students get the recommended amount of physical activity each day. Not surprisingly, the map for daily physical inactivity strongly correlates to the map for obesity rates.
- Worldwide obesity rates have nearly doubled since 1980, according to the World Health Organization. The international health watchdog also estimates that 500 million people on Earth are obese, or about 7% of the total human population.
- Approximately 65% of the world's population now lives in countries where obesity and overweight health risks kill more people than underweight health risks. That figure includes every high-income nation, most middle-income nations, and -- perhaps more worrisome -- a growing list of developing nations.
- In 1822, Americans consumed 45 grams of sugar every five days, equal to just one 12-ounce can of soda. Today, the average American consumes 765 grams of sugar every five days, or about the same amount found in 17 12-ounce sodas.
- The American Heart Association recommends that the average daily dose of sugar should not exceed 9.5 teaspoons. The average adult consumes 22 teaspoons a day, with the average child consuming 32 teaspoons each day.
- Harvard University has found some interesting correlations between sugar consumption and obesity. A massive 120,000-individual study found that drinking one sugary drink per day adds an extra pound of weight every four years. It may not seem like much, but it's a sneaky way to gain five hard-to-lose pounds over a 25-year period (also, see No. 15 below). Similarly, children who drink one sugary beverage each day are 60% more likely to become obese.
- Researchers tracked 40,000 men for 20 years in one study of sugar consumption and health risks. They concluded that men who averaged one can of sugary beverage daily increased their risk of heart attack by 20%. A similar study in women found that regular consumption of a sugary beverage increased the risk of gout by 75%.
- A study by Tufts University found that 19% of restaurant foods tested contained at least 100 more calories than advertised. One item exceeded its menu disclosure by 1,000 calories.
- To better help airlines model fuel costs, the Federal Aviation Administration increased the weight of an average American male from 170 pounds to 184 pounds in 2004. It might be time to adjust that once more.
- A study conducted by Dr. Paul Peppard of the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that there could be a link between obesity and sleeping disorders. Peppard believes that as many as 5 million people in America could have sleep apnea caused by obesity.
- The key to understanding obesity may lie in our DNA. A recent study featured in the International Journal of Obesity that evaluated 2,269 children found that children who are more genetically similar to each other were also more similar in body weight. Most importantly, the study concluded that additive effects of multiple genes could account for up to 30% of the variance of childhood body weight. Previous studies had only been able to account for 2% of this variance.
- In 2012, Belviq and Qsymia became the first two weight-loss drugs to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in more than 13 years.
- Half of patients taking Belviq every day for 12 weeks saw body weight drop by at least 5%. For an adult who is 5'11" and weighs 215 pounds, that equates to 11 pounds.
- Despite big expectations for Qsymia, sales have stumbled out of the gate. The drug raked in just more than $4 million in the first quarter. By contrast, VIVUS had to write off $5.8 million in expired inventory.
- Fellow Fool Brian Orelli points out several reasons for muted enthusiasm of obesity drugs. Three previous weight-loss drugs -- fen-phen, Meridia, and Acomplia -- were infamously yanked from the market after serious health risks were discovered post-marketing.
- In post marketing studies, fenfluramine (the "fen" in "fen-phen") was shown to bind to serotonin 2B receptors and cause potentially fatal heart valve damage. The finding led to the drug's removal from the market, a $13 billion lawsuit, and the current wariness about obesity drugs.
- Luckily for patients, Belviq has been show to selectively bind to serotonin 2C receptors, which are not associated with the same dangerous health concerns of serotonin 2C binders. Long-term data will likely be needed before doctors feel comfortable that the drug does not pose significant danger to patients.
As you can see, it is always a good idea to investigate the facts behind accepted generalities. This list should help investors realize that obesity is truly a complex health problem that also represents a huge opportunity for Arena and VIVUS. Both companies certainly have their work cut out for them when it comes to successfully marketing their weight-loss therapies -- and true success could take years.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that adding one sugary drink per year (instead of one per day) added an extra pound of weight every four years. The Fool regrets the error.