When I tell people that I work for a drug company, they often want to know what disease I'm working on. I've been able to give all kinds of answers over the years, and most of them go over well. Everyone's glad to hear that you're doing research on diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's or other widespread high-profile problems. Of the areas I've spent time in, cancer probably has the most cachet on this scale, since almost everyone knows of someone who's had serious trouble with one form or another.
The antithesis of cancer's situation is probably obesity. No matter how many headlines come out on its epidemic nature, huge public health consequences, and so on, it still doesn't get you the respect that other indications do. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is the seriousness of the disease, as defined by life expectancy. For better or worse, obesity patients are going to survive for much longer periods than cancer patients.
Scientifically, this actually makes the field more difficult to work in. Frankly, with most of the current cancer therapies, all we can offer is a few more months or (in some cases) years of life for most patients, so until recently long-term side effect issues haven't been a big concern. (Note, though, that this is changing). But obesity therapies are going to be used for longer periods of time. Obesity is associated with a shorter lifespan, true, but the level of obesity that some people are wanting to treat doesn't have that great an effect on mortality, and the survival rate with even morbid obesity is one heck of a lot better than with most kinds of cancer.
Getting back to the seriousness problem, another issue is that for many people, it's hard to shake the image of obesity as something that could be better treated by just eating less food and getting off the couch. I realize that that's not always a fair judgement, and my heart does indeed go out to people who put on weight more easily than the average person. But that said, there can be little doubt that eating fewer calories and doing a bit more exercise would take off untold numbers of pounds nationwide. The question is, as physicians will tell you, is whether anyone is going to do those things. If they can be more motivated by taking an obesity drug along with changing their diet and doing some exercise, then perhaps the drugs will have partially proved their worth. Of course, you could argue that similar effects at that level might be obtained by pills filled with, say, oat bran, billed as wonderful new obesity therapies: Placebatrim, anyone?
No, we're not going to be able to get away with that one. That's a market for the "nutritional supplement" people. An obesity drug from a real pharmaceutical company is going to have to really do something to get past the FDA, and it's going to have to be extremely safe in order to stay on the market. (Thus the current state of the obesity drug market). Anything that meets these criteria will make a huge amount of money. But respect? Fair or not, that might be asking too much. . .