Filed Under: Big Fat Lies

Obesity Hype: The Wonder Pill’s Wonder Boy

The spotlight is shining brightly on the latest anti-obesity drug, as the multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis unveiled a study on the safety and efficacy of Acomplia. As we've pointed out before, the big pharmaceutical and weight-loss firms have been working for years to get people thinking of obesity as a "disease" and an "epidemic" — thereby growing the market for their waistline-shrinking pills and plans. So it's not surprising that the researcher who oversaw this recent study of Acomplia — a man flush with drug industry money — has done more than anyone else to push some of the biggest obesity myths around.

The overwhelmingly influential Xavier Pi-Sunyer is largely responsible for the widely repeated "facts" that 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese and that obesity costs the U.S. $117 billion each year. As chairman of a National Institutes of Health task force on obesity — a position he has held for nearly ten years — Pi-Sunyer instituted the government's grand redefinition that instantly cast more than 30 million Americans from the "normal" into the "overweight" category (plopping them down into the market for weight-loss help). And as editor-in-chief of the journal Obesity Research, he published the deeply flawed study concluding that the price of obesity is $117 billion.

Not surprisingly, one of the three most commonly cited (but overblown) obesity statistics — that obesity kills 400,00 Americans each year — derives from two of Pi-Sunyer's close colleagues. Well-funded researcher Dr. D.B. Allison headed the study resulting in this obesity myth. At the time, Allison worked for Pi-Sunyer at the New York Obesity Research Center (he remains an"affiliate"). One of Allison's co-authors was Theodore VanItallie. Pi-Sunyer has been the director of the VanItallie Center for Weight Loss and Maintenance since 1993, and VanItallie himself is an "Emeritus" staff member of Pi-Sunyer's Obesity Research Center.

Helping to push overblown obesity myths, Pi-Sunyer serves on the advisory board of the American Obesity Association (AOA), the center of fat hysteria whichtakes credit for pushing Medicare's recent decision to consider covering weight-loss drugs and procedures. Of course, Sanofi-Aventis helps finance AOA. In so doing, the company is seeking to cash in on the oldest marketing trick in the book: create a problem, then offer the (expensive) solution.

Pi-Sunyer, who received an "honorarium" from Sanofi-Aventis for his work on Acomplia, is featured in their recent press release about the drug. And he has been quoted in more than 400 stories singing the praises of a pill some hope will be a once-in-a-decade blockbuster. Pi-Sunyer has also implied that overweight patients will have to shell out for Acomplia over the course of their whole lives. HealthDaynews service reports: "Individuals who lost weight on the drug then stopped taking it after one year regained the weight. Those who stayed on the drug maintained their weight loss through the second year, Pi-Sunyer said."

Aside from Sanofi-Aventis, who else pays Pi-Sunyer? The "Integrity in Science" online database from the Center for Science in the Public Interest(CSPI) includes the following information about Pi-Sunyer and his close connections to weight-loss companies:

Advisory boards of American Home Products' Wyeth-Ayerst labs and Knoll Pharmaceuticals; consultant to Lilly Pharmaceuticals, Genentech, Hoffman-LaRoche, Knoll, Weight-Watchers International, and Neurogen; on Knoll Pharmaceutical's Weight Risk Investigation Study Council (provides research grants).

In fact, CSPI has asked the government to remove Pi-Sunyer from the federal government's Dietary Guidelines Committee on account of his "extensive industrial affiliations." But CSPI's list is by no means complete. Pi-Sunyer also sits on the advisory boards of AOA sponsors Abbott Laboratories, Johnson & Johnson, and McNeil Nutritionals. And it turns out that Pi-Sunyer's New York Obesity Research Center is one of eight "Centers for Obesity Research and Education" funded by AOA sponsors Abbott Laboratories, Sonafi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals, Roche Laboratories, and Slim-Fast Foods.

Acomplia is hardly the first weight-loss product the financially conflicted Pi-Sunyer has pushed. He is past-president and current board member of the Weight Watchers Foundation, which paid Pi-Sunyer's Obesity Research Center to conduct a study on the effectiveness of … that's right, commercial weight-loss regimens. This study was actually published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association). After touting the benefits of plans such as Weight Watchers, the study's fine print acknowledges that a full-time Weight Watchers employee (Karen Miller-Kovach, who also happens to serve on AOA's board of directors) was able to influence the write-up.

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