Migraine and epilepsy drugs are being promoted to under-18s as weight-loss aids on TikTok
Dangerous prescription drugs are being marketed to teenagers as weight loss solutions on TikTok, an investigation has revealed.
One medication that floats under the brand #dietpill is topiramate, which is given to people who suffer from epilepsy and debilitating migraines.
When used correctly, the drug — currently the subject of a government study into whether it’s safe — can effectively treat these problems.
It can also cause users to lose their appetite and experience weight loss.
But it can also cause some rare, yet serious complications, such as glaucoma and kidney problems.
Investigators found that potentially dangerous prescription drugs are being promoted as weight loss aids to teenagers
One of these drugs found to be promoted by TikTok users as a weight loss aid was the prescription drug topiramate, which is given to people who suffer from epileptic seizures and migraines. It is currently the subject of a government safety review after its use was linked to birth defects when taken during pregnancy
What weight loss medicines are currently approved in the UK?
The NHS says a good diet and regular exercise is the best way to lose weight.
But for those who cannot shed their excess fat in this way, there are two drugs currently approved for use.
What is it?
It is a pill that is taken up to three times a day.
How does it work?
It prevents fat from being absorbed by the digestive system, which then passes out of the body as faeces.
This helps stop people gaining more weight, but does not cause weight loss on its own.
How do I get it?
In most cases, orlistat is prescribed by a doctor if someone has already tried to lose weight but failed.
An over-the-counter version called Alli can be bought from the pharmacy.
Does it have any side effects?
Oily or greasy stools, oily rectal discharge and high levels of flatulence.
What is it?
An appetite suppressant drug delivered via a daily injection.
How does it work?
It changes the metabolism so that you feel full and less hungry. This makes you eat less and, in theory, lose weight.
How do I get it?
Liraglutide is generally only prescribed after a GP has referred you to a specialist weight loss management service and when orlistat has not worked.
People should maintain a balanced diet and regular exercise while taking it.
Does it have any side effects?
The most frequently reported are aches and pains, diarrhoea, fever, frequent urination and difficulty sleeping.
The drug has also been linked to birth defects if taken while pregnant or trying to have a baby, prompting the government to launch a safety review in July.
Investigators found nearly a third of the 100 most popular posts on the social media platform’s #dietpills tag pushed pills as a way to stay slim.
This happened despite the fact that the account used was registered as belonging to a 16-year-old girl.
Furthermore, a quarter of these posts promoted topiramate or other prescription drugs.
In some of the posts, users said that the pills helped to ‘suppress’ their appetite and increase their body temperature to lose significant amounts of weight.
Experts today said the promotion of these drugs as weight loss aids was ‘completely inappropriate’ and there was a danger they could cause ‘real harm’.
The UK only lists two drugs as safe and effective treatments for weight loss, but neither is routinely offered to children.
These are orlistat, which is available over the counter from high street pharmacies, and prescription liraglutide.
However, a number of other medicines can also induce weight loss as a side effect.
This is either due to their effect on internal brain chemistry and therefore appetite, or metabolism, which affects how much food their body processes.
The Pharmaceutical Journal’s investigation found that the most commonly promoted diet pill was phentermine, which is not approved for use for weight loss on the NHS.
However, it is offered by some private slimming clinics.
A combination of phentermine and topiramate was approved as a weight loss treatment in the United States in 2012.
Other drugs touted as weight loss aids included naltrexone, a drug that helps people addicted to alcohol and opiates kick the habit.
Side effects of this drug include loss of appetite, impotence, depression and, in extreme cases, liver damage.
At the time of the survey, TikTok’s Diet Pills tag had amassed 10 million views.
The most popular post was liked over 20,000 times and has been shared by over a thousand users.
Reacting to the findings, a spokesman for the British Dietetic Association said the claims being promoted on TikTok were dangerous, especially for teenagers.
“Dietary claims that are unrealistic and not supported by evidence-based science on social media can be dangerous, regardless of your age,” they said.
“But for under-16s they can have very real consequences.”
Professor John Wilding, an expert in cardiovascular and metabolic medicine at Aintree University Hospital, said the promotion of the drug as a cure for obesity on social media was ‘completely inappropriate’.
“Those containing phentermine can be legally prescribed for short-term use, but only under very specific conditions,” he said. ‘It remains a controlled substance.
“Topiramate has never been approved for weight loss in the EU or UK as it has some significant potential side effects and may be teratogenic.”
Teratogenic is the scientific term for a drug that can cause birth defects if taken by a pregnant woman.
A TikTok spokesperson said they ‘care deeply about the health and well-being of our community’.
“Our Community Guidelines make it clear that we do not allow the promotion or dealing of controlled substances, including prescription weight loss medications, and we will remove content that violates these policies,” the spokesperson added.
TikTok removed some, but not all, of the videos flagged by investigators.
More than 42 million UK adults will be overweight or obese by 2040, according to Cancer Research UK forecasts
NHS recommendations state a good diet and regular exercise as the best way to lose weight.
GPs and pharmacists will generally only offer weight loss medication if a person has made a significant effort to shed their bulge.
Excess body weight is considered one of the UK’s biggest and ever-growing health problems, with the latest data showing that 64 per cent of adults are overweight and more of us are expected to become fatter in the future.
Obesity is expanding not just UK waistlines but health spending, with the NHS spending an estimated £6.1 billion on treating weight-related illness such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers between 2014 and 2015.
In the United States, an estimated 73.6 percent of adults are either overweight or obese.
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of different fruits and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, preferably whole grains
• 30 grams of fiber a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 wholegrain crackers, 2 thick slices of wholegrain bread and a large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy products or dairy products (such as soy drinks) by choosing lower fat and lower sugar
• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consume in small quantities
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men per day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide