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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Lifting Tennessee’s ban on controversial diet drugs would save money and lives, a University of Tennessee nutrition specialist said Thursday.

 Dr. Michael Zemel said the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners’ decision to create guidelines on the diet drugs phen-fen and Redux could help reduce incidence of diabetes, heart problems, hypertension and other diseases linked to obesity.

 Zemel said the move also would help people see obesity as a deadly, chronic disease that, in some cases, can be treated successfully with drugs.

 “We have to move out of the mindset of treating obesity as a cosmetic disease. It is a serious life-threatening problem,” Zemel said. “This (the board decision) is a step in the right direction to help change social attitudes and prevent health problems.”

 Zemel heads the nutrition department in UT-Knoxvlle’s College of Human Ecology.

 The board said the ban likely will be lifted in May after guidelines on the drugs’ use are set to prevent abuse and illegal street sales. The drug could be approved for sale within six months after the ban is lifted.

 Weight loss programs based only on lifestyle behavior changes without the aid of drugs almost always fail within five years, Zemel said. Medical costs for obesity-related illness and diet programs reach $80 billion per year, he said.

 Drug and lifestyle changes are prescribed for other chronic diseases, and should be allowed for obesity, he said.

 “You can make an analogy with another chronic disease such as hypertension,” Zemel said. “There is not a single, currently approved regimen for treatment of high blood pressure that is effective in all or even 90 percent of high blood pressure patients. A combination of treatments is most effective.

 “Yet because of society’s views, this is not done for obesity. Our prevailing wisdom has been that obesity is caused by overeating, inactivity and lack of self control, but studies show that genetics and childhood development are also factors. I’d like to see that point of view modified somewhat.”


 Contact: Dr. Michael Zemel (423-974-7208)