Obesity drugs: is new ‘skinny jab’ a game changer or a quick-fix fad?

Weight-loss injection loved by celebrities has been given the green light by the NHS

Appetite suppressant semaglutide tricks the body into feeling full
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A new drug designed to trigger weight loss through just one injection a week is to be made available on the NHS, health officials have announced.

Appetite suppressant semaglutide, sold under the brand name Wegovy, will be offered on prescription in England, after getting the green light from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

Some health officials have welcomed the “game changer” drug, amid hopes that it could “turn the tide on obesity and get benefit claimants back to work”, said The Times’s Whitehall editor Chris Smyth. But others have warned that the jab, which is already popular with celebrities and social media influencers, is not a “quick fix”.

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What did the papers say?

Semaglutide belongs to a class of drugs called glp-1 receptor agonists that according to headlines in the US are “the worst kept secret in Hollywood”, the BBC’s Science Focus reported. Fans of the jabs are said to range from Kim Kardashian to Elon Musk.

Treatments for weight loss “have long ranged from the well-meaning and ineffective to the downright dodgy”, said The Economist, but this new class of drugs “seems actually to work”. Developed by Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk, semaglutide “has been shown in clinical trials to lead to weight loss of about 15%”.

Injected into fatty tissue just under the skin in the abdomen, thigh or upper arm, semaglutide deploys a gut hormone, glp-1, that signals feelings of fullness to the brain. And “what happens when we feel full?” said Science Focus. “We eat less. What happens when we eat less? We lose weight.”

But news that the weight loss jab is coming to the UK “has sparked concern online”, said Cosmopolitan, “with many arguing that those looking to lose weight healthily should be guided towards diet and lifestyle changes rather than pharmaceuticals”.

Nutrition expert Pauline Cox told the magazine that “a pharmaceutical drug can never replace the benefits of physical activity and a healthy diet”.

“Effortless thinness” is a “siren call for many people, especially women”, of all shapes and sizes, said Caragh Medlicott in an opinion article for The Irish Independent. But “we must not forget that beauty standards are ultimately vacuous, capricious fictions”.

“To me,” Medicott concluded, “it seems there are two options: to continue to fight our appetites, hate our bodies,and waste our money. Or to simply opt out of the whole ridiculous fanfare.”

What next?

An estimated one in four adults in England are obese, and a further third are overweight. Obesity currently costs the NHS about £6bn a year and the annual total is projected to rise to more than £9.7bn by 2050.

Health officials are reportedly hoping that making semaglutide available on the NHS will slash the bill, by helping users achieve “what was previously only possible through weight-loss surgery”, said The Telegraph’s health editor Laura Donnelly.

Not everyone will be eligible for the new drug, however. For now, only people with a “weight-related comorbidity”, such as type two diabetes or heart disease, will be able to get semaglutide on prescription.

Helen Knight, director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said: “For some people losing weight is a real challenge, which is why a medicine like semaglutide is a welcome option. It won’t be available to everyone. Our committee has made specific recommendations to ensure it remains value for money for the taxpayer, and it can only be used for a maximum of two years.”

According to Smyth in The Times, health officials “believe that obesity drugs could ultimately be offered to up to 12m people”. Health Secretary Steve Barclay is reportedly “keen on using such medicines to treat obesity as he tries to come up with a way of preventing illness without resorting to ‘nanny state’ measures”. And officials are hoping to persuade the Treasury to fund the upfront cost “by arguing that the plans will get millions of people with joint problems and other illnesses caused by obesity back to work”.

“It is easy to see why drugs that promise to head off the worst effects of obesity may prove attractive,” Smyth added. “While the upfront costs of prescribing them to millions of people may be huge, so too are the costs of doing nothing.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.