79 million obese adults in the U.S. should be a marketing dream

The 79 million obese adults in the U.S. should be a marketing dream for the makers of anti-obesity drugs, and now Contrave, the latest treatment to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration, will try to win over a population in which more than 1 in 3 adults are obese. Yet sales have been weak for the prescription drugs already available, Qsymia and Belviq, both approved in 2012. Why has it been so difficult to pitch pharmaceutical weight loss to an overweight nation?
Much of the resistance to the weight-loss medications stems from the disastrous safety record of diet drugs pulled from the market in the 1990s. And, perhaps more important, a large number of health insurance plans won’t pay for the drugs, which often lead to only modest weight loss. In clinical trials, for example, nondiabetic patients taking Contrave lost only 4.1 percent more weight than those taking placebos.
Orexigen Therapeutics (OREX), the maker of Contrave, sees a U.S. market in which only 2 million of about 100 million potential customers are currently treated with medication. Mark Booth, the company’s chief commercial officer, described the U.S. as a “large, rapidly growing, and a vastly underserved market” during a conference call last week.
The drugmaker intends to solve the riddle of American reluctance to anti-obesity pills with sales outreach to doctors, as well as the eventual rollout of print and online ads encouraging patients to ask their doctors about the treatment. Contrave enters the U.S. with one clear advantage over its rivals: Orexigen is enlisting the 900-person U.S. sales force of Japanese pharmaceutical giant Takeda (4502:JP) to market its treatment. That gives the drug far larger sales muscle than can be mustered by the small companies behind Qsymia and Belviq.
The Contrave push will court primary care doctors and specialists such as endocrinologists who often treat obese patients. “Primary care physicians love samples,” Booth said on the call. “So sampling is a part of the tactical plan.” Takeda is also preparing print and online ads directed at patients, says Katie Andino, director of obesity marketing for Takeda USA. She wouldn’t discuss the possibility of TV ads.
Eisai, the maker of rival drug Belviq, has been running national television ads since the spring. The two-minute spot follows a familiar drug ad script: Ominous music plays as a cast of characters think out loud about their problems. “It’s late, and I’m still hungry,” one woman peering into a fridge in a darkened kitchen says. A reassuring female narrator says, “Weight loss is not just about willpower.” The music turns jaunty as the narrator suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try Belviq.”
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