Illegal ‘miracle’ weight-loss injections openly sold online
Four watchdogs are investigating sellers of ‘skinny jabs’ after being alerted by The Sunday Times
The medicines regulator has started an investigation into companies selling “skinny jabs” as a miracle weight-loss aid. Many flout regulations on prescribing and advertising.
The injections contain liraglutide, also known as Saxenda, a prescription-only appetite suppressant that should only be offered to people with a body-mass index (BMI) of more than 30 or disorders such as diabetes.
The drug, which has side effects ranging from nausea to pancreatitis, can be prescribed privately by a licensed healthcare provider but has not been approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) for NHS use.
Yet the injections are widely sold as a quick-fix diet aid by fake online pharmacies and unregistered clinics, including to customers who are not overweight.
Of five UK-based providers listed on the first page of Google, four do not display the government’s distance-selling logo to show they are registered with the medicines regulator, as required.
It is illegal to advertise prescription drugs but several promote the drug on Instagram and Facebook as a miracle weight-loss aid that can help you “drop a dress size in three weeks” or achieve your “perfect bikini body”. The platforms deleted the ads after being alerted.
Ashton Collins, director of Save Face, a register of accredited practitioners who provide non-surgical cosmetic treatments, said the organisation had seen a surge in complaints relating to skinny jabs. It received 157 reports about rogue traders selling the injections last year, up from 96 in 2018 and 54 in 2017.
Collins described social media as a “hotbed” for beauticians and others selling products on the black market. “They often buy them from China at incredibly cheap prices to circumvent the need for prescriptions,” she said.
One seller, the website SkinnyJabsUK, agreed to sell £450-worth of injections for next-day delivery to a reporter who posed as a healthy customer seeking to lose two stone over 2½ months. During a long-winded marketing spiel, Mark Pickston, who owns the company, said using the jabs was “a doddle” and boasted: “Nothing will shift the weight quicker than this.”
When asked whether the customer needed to speak to a doctor or licensed prescriber, Pickston, who has no known healthcare qualifications, said: “No, no, I do everything. We get that sorted out.” Approached for comment later, he denied wrongdoing and said: “This is simply impossible as every client has a prescription. We can promise that we are always fully committed to the wellbeing of our clients.”
After being presented with a dossier of evidence, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said it would investigate and cautioned against using Saxenda for cosmetic reasons.
The Advertising Standards Authority is also preparing to crack down on traders illegally promoting the injections.
The Instagram feed for Skinny Clinic, based in Sheffield, featured images of slim women in bikinis, littered with promises the injections can get you “bikini body ready” and help you “drop a dress size in three weeks”. One post read: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
Over the phone, the clinic told a reporter posing as a customer that it had sold skinny jabs to people with a BMI as low as 22, usually seen as healthy. It claims to issue prescriptions via a nurse “who has 27 years’ experience” in the NHS. The Nursing and Midwifery Council is investigating.
The clinic is not registered with the Care Quality Commission, which is also investigating, and, like SkinnyJabsUK, does not display the online medicine selling logo as required. Skinny Clinic did not respond to requests for comment.
Robbie Turner, director of pharmacy at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, called the industry a “murky world”. He added: “If someone is willing to flout the rules around advertising or supplying prescription-only drugs, they’re not going to be concerned about your safety.”
Sarah Le Brocq, a director of the charity Obesity UK, said the black market for skinny jabs was damaging the reputation of Saxenda.
“It horrifies me, because ultimately this is a drug that can really help people living with obesity. If it gets into the wrong hands and people start having adverse events, I’m concerned it will have an impact on the drug getting approval in the UK, which is not fair.”
The drug could also fuel eating disorders, said Adam Cox, a clinical hypnotherapist and founder of Addiction Experts, who expressed concern about remote consultations where patients cannot be weighed or assessed by a doctor in person. “It’s very alarming,” he said.
Novo Nordisk, which makes Saxenda, said: “Novo Nordisk has no affiliation with any of these weight-loss programmes, and we do not authorise the use of any of our medicines outside of their licensed indications.
“Private weight-loss clinics can purchase Saxenda from a UK wholesaler, who carries out the required checks to ensure safe distribution of the medicine. Novo Nordisk has no influence over who purchases from this wholesaler.”
The MHRA said: “We are extremely grateful to The Sunday Times for bringing this matter to our attention. We will review the websites for compliance with medicines regulations and take further action as necessary.”
Instagram and Facebook last night removed a set of accounts and posts advertising skinny jabs. Facebook, which owns Instagram, said: “We don’t allow the sale, purchase or promotion of prescription drugs. We urge anyone who comes across content like this to report it using our in-app reporting tools.”
Skinny Clinic declined to comment.