Young people * Weight loss

Children given adult diet pills to combat obesity

children using adult weight loss pills Many quit before drugs can be effective

Weight loss pills containing orlistat, such as Alli or Xenical, are available on prescription in the UK - but only licensed for over 18s.

Now researchers have found that an increasing number of young people are being given them on prescription - a 15 times increase since 1999. They estimate that around 1,300 children and adolescents receive the pills each year.

More than three quarters of those included in the study received prescriptions for orlistat, also known as Xenical or Alli. Orlistat has been approved for children as young as 12 in the US, but only for adults in the UK. Most patients given orlistat stopped using it very quickly, on average after just three months. This makes it unlikely they would have had any benefit.

"It's possible that the drugs are being given inappropriately, or that they have excessive side effects that make young people discontinue their use. On the other hand they could be expecting the drugs to deliver a miracle "quick fix" and stop using them when sudden, rapid weight loss does not occur," said Russell Viner, one of the authors of the study based at the General & Adolescent Paediatrics Unit at University College London.

When taking the drugs, people also need to reduce their intake of fat, otherwise unpleasant side-effects such as loose, oily stools (diarrhoea) will occur. But many users consider these pills to produce "miracle" weight loss and are therefore not following this advice.

As the drugs are expensive, the number of young people who fail to complete the course represents wastage of resources that could be directed elsewhere.

One of the authors, Ian Wong, suggests that children should be given more support to manage their diet when taking these pills:

"You have to tell them that, yes, it is healthier not to absorb the fat, but if they continue to eat as much as they used to then it will be really unpleasant. The key thing is that the drug itself is not the answer. Kids should only be using it as part of a comprehensive weight-loss programme," said Wong.

This article was published on Thu 3 September 2009

Image © Andrzej Tokarski -

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