Explainer: New ‘skinny jab’ has been approved by the NHS – but does it work and can you buy it? | Obesity

Retail chain Superdrug last week urged customers to register an interest in the injectables as controversy intensified over a new weight-loss drug approved for use in the NHS.

While prescription drug advertising is theoretically banned, online advertising reflects the public's enthusiasm for what is widely known as the panacea. Some experts are warning of a false dawn and are advising ministers not to “follow the bandwagon”.

Semaglutide is manufactured by the Danish company Novo Nordisk and sold in the UK as Wegovy as a once-weekly injection that must be prescribed by a specialist doctor. A similar drug, liraglutide, marketed under the name Saxenda and made by the same company, is already on the market, but must be injected daily.

Proponents say these next-generation weight-loss drugs are an important new tool in the fight against obesity. A version called tirzepatide, made by Eli Lilly, also led to significant weight loss in trials.

These drugs work by mimicking the action of a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which regulates appetite and food intake. The drug is based on a chemical found in the venom of the Gila monster, a lizard native to the United States and parts of Mexico.

Last Wednesday, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommended the drug for NHS weight management services, saying it could help patients lose more than 10% of their body weight. Prescriptions will be limited to two years because there is no data yet on the long-term effects of the drug. Side effects include fatigue, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

The so-called “slimming shot” is not a “quick fix” but could help fight obesity, experts say. However, some believe the billions of pounds spent on launching such drugs may be better spent on preventing obesity.

Professor Neil Barnard of the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, and chair of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said studies have shown that a good diet can stimulate GLP-1 production and help control appetite without side effects or drug costs . “Studies show that with the right food choices, you can boost GLP-1 naturally without injections,” he says.

Other experts say the drugs will have limited impact if patients continue to eat large amounts of foods high in sugar and fat.

While the debate continues, Wegovy is being promoted online in the UK for private purchase. A daily edition of Saxenda is also being promoted.

The UK's Medicines for Human Use Regulations 2012 state: “No person shall publish an advertisement which may lead to the use of a prescription medicine.” Advertisement Practices Council guidelines also prohibit such advertisements.

Superdrug said the advertisement for Wegovy was posted in error and is being removed. A spokesman said: “We are urgently reviewing the agreement with our third-party agency to ensure this type of error does not happen again.”

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