The NHS in 2009 spent £46.8 million on anti-obesity drugs such as orlistat, which stops the absorption of fat from food in the intestine. This is up from £6.6 million in 2000, a seven-fold rise.
According to the NHS Information Centre, the number of prescription items for such drugs has risen from 157,000 to 1.45 million over the same period.
After two other drugs were withdrawn over safety fears, marketed under the trade name Xenical, orlistat is now the only prescription pill that GPs can offer.
A poll of 3,000 people by the Co-Operative Pharmacy has found that an increasing number of young people are turning to GPs for help after being ridiculed for their weight.
The survey found that almost a fifth of 18 to 35s had been “victimised over their weight”, with women more likely to receive abuse than men.
In a single year, the Co-Op pharmacy chain has seen sales of weight-loss drugs rise by two-thirds.
‘Drugs not a substitute for healthy lifestyle’
Speaking for the firm, Mandeep Mudhar said: “Various factors can act as a trigger for weight gain, for example stress or illness but while medication can help to promote weight loss in certain circumstances, it is not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle and exercise.”
He added: “It is concerning that people start to worry about their weight at such a young age and that people are being bullied because of their weight.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “The rise in the number of prescription items reflects, in part, the problem of obesity in adults.
“TheNational Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence’s clinical guideline on obesity makes it clear that drug treatments should be prescribed only if diet and exercise have been tried, after discussion of the risks and benefits, and with continued support for lifestyle change.
“For children, drugs should only be prescribed if their health is at serious risk.”
The NHS now spends very similar amounts on weight-loss drugs and obesity surgery, about £50 million apiece.
The number of bariatric surgery (gastric band and gastric bypass operations) has increased from 198 in 1999-2000 to 7,214 in 2009-10.