In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly one in five children have obesity. Since the 1980s, the number of children with obesity has been increasing, with each generation reaching higher rates and greater weights at earlier ages. Even with extensive efforts from parents, clinicians, educators, and policymakers to limit the excessive weight gain among children, the number of obesity and severe obesity diagnoses keeps rising.
In response to this critical public health challenge, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) introduced new clinical practice guidelines for the evaluation and management of obesity in children and adolescents. Developed by an expert panel, the new AAP guidelines present a departure in the conceptualization of obesity, recognizing the role that social determinants of health play in contributing to excessive weight gain.
As a community health researcher who investigates disparities in childhood obesity, I applaud the paradigm shift from the AAP. I specifically endorse the recognition that obesity is a very serious metabolic disease that won’t go away unless we introduce systemic changes and effective treatments.
However, I, like so many of my colleagues and anyone aware of the access barriers to the recommended treatments, worry about the consequences that the new guidelines will have in the context of current and future health disparities.
A recent study, published in Pediatrics, showed that childhood obesity disparities are widening. Younger generations of children are reaching higher weights at younger ages. These alarming trends are greater among Black children and children growing up with the greatest socioeconomic disadvantages. The new AAP guidelines – even while driven by good intentions – can exacerbate these differences and set children who are able to live healthy lives further apart from those with disproportionate obesity risks, who lack access to the treatments recommended by the AAP.
Rather than “watchful waiting,” to see if children outgrow obesity, the new guidelines call for “aggressive treatment,” as reported by this news organization. At least 26 hours of in-person intensive health behavior and lifestyle counseling and treatment are recommended for children aged 2 years old or older who meet the obesity criteria. For children aged 12 years or older, the AAP recommends complementing lifestyle counseling with pharmacotherapy. This breakthrough welcomes the use of promising antiobesity medications (for example, orlistat, Wegovy [semaglutide], Saxenda [liraglutide], Qsymia (phentermine and topiramate]) approved by the Food and Drug Administration for long-term use in children aged 12 and up. For children 13 years or older with severe obesity, bariatric surgery should be considered.
Will cost barriers continue to increase disparity?
The very promising semaglutide (Wegovy) is a GLP-1–based medication currently offered for about $1,000 per month. As with other chronic diseases, children should be prepared to take obesity medications for prolonged periods of time. A study conducted in adults found that when the medication is suspended, any weight loss can be regained. The costs of bariatric surgery total over $20,000.
In the U.S. health care system, at current prices, very few of the children in need of the medications or surgical treatments have access to them. Most private health insurance companies and Medicaid reject coverage for childhood obesity treatments. Barriers to treatment access are greater for Black and Hispanic children, children growing up in poverty, and children living in the U.S. South region, all of whom are more likely to develop obesity earlier in life than their White and wealthier counterparts.
The AAP recognized that a substantial time and financial commitment is required to follow the new treatment recommendations. Members of the AAP Expert Committee that developed the guidelines stated that they are “aware of the multitude of barriers to treatment that patients and their families face.”
Nevertheless, the recognition of the role of social determinants of health in the development of childhood obesity didn’t motivate the introduction of treatment options that aren’t unattainable for most U.S. families.
It’s important to step away from the conclusion that because of the price tag, at the population level, the new AAP guidelines will be inconsequential. This conclusion fails to recognize the potential harm that the guidelines may introduce. In the context of childhood obesity disparities, the new treatment recommendations probably will widen the childhood obesity prevalence gap between the haves – who will benefit from the options available to reduce childhood obesity – and the have-nots, whose obesity rates will continue with their growth.
We live in a world of the haves and have-nots. This applies to financial resources as well as obesity rates. In the long term, the optimists hope that the GLP-1 medications will become ubiquitous, generics will be developed, and insurance companies will expand coverage and grant access to most children in need of effective obesity treatment options. Until this happens, unless intentional policies are promptly introduced, childhood obesity disparities will continue to widen.
To avoid the increasing disparities, brave and intentional actions are required. A lack of attention dealt to this known problem will result in a lost opportunity for the AAP, legislators, and others in a position to help U.S. children.
Liliana Aguayo, PhD, MPH, is assistant professor, Clinical Research Track, Hubert Department of Global Health, Emory University, Atlanta. A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.