Millions of Americans may soon have another weapon in the battle of the bulge.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved use of the "Lap-Band" type of weight loss surgery at lower minimum weight limits, making an estimated 26 million Americans newly eligible for the procedure.
Previously, the surgery was restricted to people with a body mass index of 40, or 35 if they had an obesity-related health problem, such as diabetes, hypertension or joint pain.
The threshold approved by the FDA last week remains at 40 for those without a related health condition, but drops to 30 for those with health conditions.
While experts believe that there is significant demand for the surgery, they don't expect the floodgates to open just yet.
"The FDA may have lowered the requirements, but the insurance companies are the ones who really decide," said Daniel Gagne, director of bariatric surgery for Pittsburgh's West Penn Allegheny Health System. "I most definitely think there would be a big rush of people if their insurance covered it."
The vast majority of bariatric surgery procedures performed at WPAHS are not the Lap-Band type, in which an inflatable silicone ring is placed around part of the stomach. Instead, they're gastric bypass surgeries, which are more invasive but generally result in higher weight loss totals.
The new weight guidelines would apply to patients who are just marginally obese.
For a 5-foot-9 man or woman, a BMI of 40 would be equivalent to 271 pounds, 35 would be 237 pounds and 30 would be 203 pounds.
The government considers people with a BMI of more than to be 30 to be obese, while 25 is the cutoff for overweight.
Lowering the weight limits for Lap-Band surgeries involved some controversy.
Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Woman and Families, testified against Lap-Band manufacturer Allergan's request to lower the weight limits and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the FDA to deny Allergan's application.
Zuckerman criticized the evidence presented by Allergan that demonstrated the Lap-Band procedure safety, noting that it had data on only 149 patients for just one to two years after surgery.
Lap-Band surgery marketing also has come under scrutiny. The head of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health asked the FDA to investigate billboards advertising the Lap-Band with the slogan 1-800-GET-THIN. The head of Allergan subsequently criticized the billboards as well, saying a separate marketing company prepared them.
(Contact Anya Sostek at asostek(at)post-gazette.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)