Fat Pill For Teens

  • As a child, I never thought much about my weight. I wasn't served sugary cereals, and I played outside with my friends, as my mother instructed me, till the streetlights came on. Like most children back in the '80s, when only 5% of U.S. kids were overweight, we were trim, maybe even skinny. But the percentage of overweight or obese children has tripled since then, along with all manner of related health risks, from diabetes to heart disease. And now our quick-fix society has come up with a pill for the problem: Xenical, the first obesity drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for adolescents.

    One of several medications on the market that limit the body's ability to digest fat, Xenical (also called orlistat) was approved for adults in 1999. In fact, it was the FDA that originally encouraged Xenical's manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche, to study its effectiveness in the pediatric population. The company selected 357 obese kids ages 12 to 16 and put them on both Xenical and a low-fat diet. As a control, 182 equally overweight teens were put on the same diet and a placebo. At the end of the study, the Xenical children had lower body-mass indexes than the controls did and had gained less weight, even during the growth spurts of adolescence.

    While the drug may help some kids, compliance might not be easy. Because the pill works by blocking an enzyme that absorbs fat, there can be embarrassing consequences — including gas, diarrhea and incontinence for kids who dip into fatty treats. Many teens would rather give up Xenical than ice cream. And because it costs $1,500 a year, their parents may be similarly inclined. Xenical was only moderately effective when it was tested on adults; after treatment stopped, the pounds tended to return.

    Sanjay Gupta is a neurosurgeon and CNN medical correspondent