More people in Surrey Heartlands were prescribed the anti-obesity drug orlistat last year, new figures show.
It comes as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently approved the use of another weight loss drug, semaglutide, by NHS England.
Currently, orlistat is the primary weight loss drug prescribed by the NHS and has been approved for use since 2010.
Orlistat, commonly sold under the brand name Xenical, is available on prescription from doctors, or can be bought at a pharmacy where it must be taken under the supervision of a pharmacist. The tablet works by preventing around a third of fat from food being absorbed into the body.
Data from the NHS OpenPrescribing service shows 4,410 prescriptions for orlistat were handed out by GPs in the former NHS Surrey Heartlands CCG area throughout 2022 at a total cost of £123,200 to the NHS.
It is the highest number of prescriptions for the weight loss drug handed out in the area since 2018.
Over the past five years, there were 20,400 prescriptions for orlistat in Surrey Heartlands – costing the health service around £533,900.
The Obesity Health Alliance, which welcomed the approval of semaglutide, said drugs alone will not be the answer to the UK’s extremely high levels of excess weight.
“We need to take action to ensure that as few people as possible reach the stage of needing pharmaceutical or surgical interventions,” it said.
The OHA added the root cause of obesity must be tackled, including the level of unhealthy food and drink that is marketed and promoted.
Across England, about 360,000 prescriptions for orlistat were given by GPs in 2022. It was an increase on the previous three years, but down from 2018’s figure of 370,000.
Overall, the weight loss drug prescriptions cost the health service £9.8 million last year.
Beat, a charity supporting those affected by eating disorders, warned the weight-loss medication can seem like a “quick fix”, but can have a devastating impact on people with eating disorders.
Tom Quinn, the charity's external affairs director said: “We know that misdiagnosis is rife: our own research found that nearly a quarter of people who sought help for binge eating disorder were recommended a diet plan.”
Quinn added frontline healthcare professionals and weight management services must screen for eating disorders when considering a prescription for weight-loss medication.
Semaglutide, sold under the brand name Wegovy, will be made available in NHS specialist weight management service and will be prescribed alongside a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity.
Helen Knight, director of medicines evaluation at NICE, said the drug is a “welcome option” for people who struggle to lose weight.
“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.”
Only adults who have at least two weight-related medical conditions and a high body mass index will be eligible for the injections.