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A new study released last week provided ample confirmation that – for better or worse – our kids are more medicated than ever before.

The study, conducted by Express Scripts, one of the leading pharmacy insurance benefit plans, in association with the Pediatric Research Institute in St. Louis, and the Kansas Health Institute, analyzed insurance claims for 3.2 million children ages 5-19.

The study showed the following dramatic increases in prescriptions over a four-year period, from 2002 to 2005:

  • Prescriptions to treat ADD/ADHD – 40% increase
  • Prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering drugs – 15% increase
  • Prescriptions to treat Type 2 diabetes – 46% increase

With regard to ADD/ADHD, while some of this increase could be a result of better screening over this relatively short period, the likelihood is that the standard of care for this condition has been altered – perhaps prompted by effective marketing from pharmaceutical companies – so that more doctors are prescribing more medication when presented with a given set of symptoms.

With regard to cholesterol and diabetes, most of this increase is due to increased incidence of these conditions in children. A CDC study released last week showed that Type 2 diabetes in kids increased 90% from 1997 – 2007. The culprit, of course, is obesity.

This raises the question: Ten years from now, are doctors likely to be prescribing drugs to our kids for the treatment of obesity?

Only a little while ago, it looked like the answer was yes. Most major pharmaceutical companies had promising weight loss drugs in development, with trials scheduled to prove both safety and efficacy.

Just this past week, however, the European Medicines Agency recommended the suspension of one of the most promising obesity drugs, Acomplia, because the drug’s risk of psychiatric side effects outweighed the benefits. In 2007, Acomplia had failed to win the backing of an FDA advisory panel for the same reason.

Acomplia was the first of a class of drugs called selective cannabinoid receptor CB1 antagonists that work by blocking hunger signals in the brain. In October, Merck said that its experimental treatment Taranabant, in the same class of medicines as Acomplia, won’t make it to market because it makes people depressed and irritable.

Most analysts now believe this category of drugs are pretty much dead in the water for the treatment of obesity. Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, has stopped early-stage work on obesity drugs as part of an overhaul of its research department.

For the foreseeable future, effective obesity treatment for kids will not be available in the form of a pill. And with surgery still a risky option for children and teens, parents who are serious about helping their children return to a healthy weight would be best served by seeking out a professionally run weight management program focused on behavioral change, and with proven long-term outcomes.