Expect a long slog for diet drugs Qsymia, Belviq

Vivus ($VVUS) says its new diet drug Qsymia is now available in 8,000 retail pharmacies, putting it closer to patients. Arena Pharmaceuticals' ($ARNA) Belviq is finally on the market, and scripts are coming in. But this new generation of weight-loss pills still faces an uphill climb--despite the tantalizing size of the market.

As the New York Times reports, weight-loss pills still face the same old obstacles: reimbursement problems, safety worries, a once-burned-twice-shy feeling about diet pills in general. The American Medical Association may have decided that obesity is a disease, but many doctors see it as a lifestyle problem, best addressed with diet and exercise alone.

"You've got this turning of the battleship to change how the medical community views obesity," Vivus' VP for scientific communications, Dr. Barbara Troupin, told the NYT.

Plus, weight-loss drugs just don't deliver big results, at least for most patients. In two separate studies, Qsymia patients lost 6.7% and 8.9% of their body weight. Belviq users fared less well, with a 3% to 3.7% weight loss that lasted for a year. About 47% of patients without diabetes lost at least 5% of their weight, however, so the FDA approved the drug with the proviso that patients stop using it after three months if they haven't yet hit the 5% mark. So, as the NYT notes, discouraged patients tend to give up after a few months.

For some patients, though, a drug does the trick. The NYT highlights one man who lost 92 pounds on Qsymia, about 21% of his body weight. There's no way of knowing up front which patients will respond dramatically, but perhaps Vivus and Arena can persuade doctors to experiment.

Vivus and Arena have both been plugging away at gaining reimbursement, with some success. Armed with the AMA's new view on obesity, the companies may gain an edge with doctors. More anecdotes from patients who unload a significant amount of weight would help, too.

- read the NYT story