Obesity is an epidemic that affects more Americans than tobacco smoking, alcoholism and poverty combined.

This is an alarming fact that is often not realized by many Americans. The total annual cost America’s obesity problem will exceed $100 billion this year, with a good chunk being used on obesity drugs and diets. While these drugs and diets may try to help the afflicted lose weight, they do not attack obesity at its core. Prevention of obesity is the only sure way to cure it, and more resources need to be allocated to prevention rather than trying to treat the effects of obesity. Obesity is considered a preventable disease. It should be approached as such.

In recent years, a plethora of different dieting programs have been produced for overweight individuals. Some try to lose weight because of health problems, while others try because of self-esteem problems or social pressures to look fit. Approximately a quarter of Americans are thought to be obese. Americans will spend over $33 billion on weight-loss products this year, while the direct cost in treating obesity will exceed $52 billion. These numbers will go up as the percentage of Americans who are obese is likely to rise and become even more of an economic sinkhole for the health care system. It is becoming an epidemic that is poised to pass tobacco smoking as the No. 1 cause of death among preventable diseases in America.

America has done an effective job in combating smoking, and the main reason the number of deaths attributed to smoking is declining is because America made a valiant effort to prevent smoking across the nation using various prevention programs. This kind of effort also needs to be applied to obesity. Merely treating the effects of obesity will not solve the problem.

One of the main problems of obesity drugs is that they are not very effective at maintaining weight loss. Patients who are prescribed such drugs do lose weight initially, but an overwhelming majority of them end up gaining all their weight back. Current obesity drugs are only marginally effective in the short run but cause substantial side effects, and even death in rare cases. This is the reason why obesity drugs do not often display the ideal drug sales curve. Typically when a new drug is released by a drug company, sales stay strong until the patent on the drug expires and generics hit the market. But with obesity drugs, this is often not the case. Instead, sales start to bottom out even before the patents expire. This is because obesity drug patients are often unhappy with the efficacy of the drugs, or the side effects from the drugs are not worth it.

The best way to treat obesity is through exercise and lifestyle changes. This is something that drug companies cannot produce in a pill. However, it is something that can instilled and promoted by developing programs that target obesity prevention.

Prevention will help shrink the amount of money wasted on ineffective obesity drugs. It will also help alleviate the need to pay for other drugs to treat other diseases linked to obesity such as Type II diabetes, which in itself is another billion-dollar epidemic. It will be prudent for America to concentrate on using more of its resources to prevent obesity. The amount spent on obesity prevention is very small when compared to the amount of capital that is spent on obesity drugs. These prevention programs should also target the younger generations. An overwhelming number of young children are coming into physicians’ offices obese, and these children are more likely to be obese as adults, too. Old habits die hard, so unless prevention programs are able to combat the issue at the root of the problem, it will be much harder for these programs to succeed.

Developing successful obesity prevention programs will take time and a lot of effort, but the rewards will be much more substantial than focusing on treating obesity with drugs and dieting.

Han Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in the Genetics Department at the School of Medicine and an MBA candidate at the School of Management.