14,000 people in Australia had lap band surgery in 2008.
In Australia, as in the U.S., obesity is reaching alarming levels across all classes and regions. People are increasingly turning to surgical intervention as a treatment. Any surgery entails some danger, and some fear that the full range of potential side effects and risks of these procedures may not be fully understood by prospective patients.
The eagerness of many to jump at what looks like a “quick fix” for obesity may be fed by the aggressive marketing of lap band surgical approaches by those who stand to profit financially from the boom in this medical niche.
Rachel Brown of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported on a lively debate that has arisen in Australia among sociologists, doctors, researchers and patients themselves—both satisfied customers and survivors with horror stories.
The Benefits of Weight Loss Surgery Are Known
Procedures like gastric bypass and lap band surgery have proven benefits for many patients faced with the dire consequences of obesity—heart ailments, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, etc. Proponents of surgical weight loss stress that the surgery has been demonstrated to improve the lives and the life expectancy of the obese.
Associate Professor John Dixon of the Bakers Institute notes that “The risks associated with obesity surgery are actually very low. We have much more dangerous surgery in our communities—heart surgery, bowel surgery, hip surgery.” He adds, “People who have this procedure actually are more likely to live longer as a result of their improved health status.”
The Patients’ Experience
Tasmanian Member of Parliament Dick Adams supports this from on his own experience as a patient. Since his own lap band surgery last year, “I have lost about 32 kilos and from that it improved my blood-sugar levels, therefore my diabetes and gave me control over that.”
But Adams’s positive experience contrasts dramatically with that of a Melbourne man whose surgery led to complications that left him in an induced coma for 3 weeks. Les Twentyman claims he was not informed of the potential risks of the surgery: “if there had have been any risk I would have been a bit reluctant.”
Health Sociologist Dr. Samantha Thomas sounds the alarm that lap band surgery is being oversold to people who are unaware of the many potential risks and after-effects. “We know people experience gastric reflux, vomiting, digestive disease and psychological health problems.” And approximately one out of every 2000 patients actually dies from complications following lap band surgery.
Conflicts of interest?
Thomas is particularly troubled by the role of Allergan, the primary supplier of the surgical supplies used in lap band surgery. Allergan spends millions of dollars on advertising and promotions in Australia each year, much of this going directly to doctors and other medical professionals who may be influenced to recommend the surgery. Allergan also funds extensive research in support of the procedure. For instance, the Centre for Obesity Research and Education at Monash University has been supported financially by Allergan, and Center director Paul O’Brien has been an advisory board member with Allergan.
But while “I understand that there can be a perceived conflict of interest,” says Professor Dixon (who also holds industry advisory posts), “any developments in surgery and any developments in the drug world are coming through industry. If we as universities and research institutes don’t engage and work with industry to develop better therapies and to learn how to better utilize these therapies, we’re really being quite negligent in medicine moving forward.”
For a transcript of Brown’s report, go to