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NHS leaders urge Instagram to clamp down on unlicensed weight-gain drug

by Jess Hacker
5 May 2021

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NHS England has written to Instagram asking for an ‘urgent update’ on action it is taking to shut down accounts selling the unlicensed weight-gain drug, Apetamin.

The letter to Instagram chief Adam Mosseri, published Monday (3 May), called for the platform to confirm it is acting to remove any accounts actively selling or promoting the drug.

It highlights NHSE’s concern over the risk of ‘serious harm’ posed to people experiencing body dysmorphic disorder and to ‘any individual’ who takes Apetamin, which has not been licensed for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

An Instagram spokesperson has recently said that ‘buying and selling non-medical or prescription drugs is strictly against our policies and we have removed the accounts brought to our attention’, according to the letter.

But NHS England claimed that ‘unfortunately many accounts are still active’ and ‘when such activity was reported – in line with Instagram advice – no action was taken’.

It added that the ‘product has been promoted by accounts and influencers’ across the platform, and ‘a quick search on Instagram brings up dozens of profiles still selling and advertising the product, viewed by potentially millions of other users’.

In a statement yesterday (4 May), a spokesperson for the Facebook company – which owns Instagram – said that the wellbeing of its community was its ‘top priority’ and that it removes ‘accounts that sell Apetamin when we become aware of them’.

Steps to protect wellbeing

The letter – co-signed by Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s mental health director, Steve Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, and Kitty Wallace, head of operations for the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation – asked Instagram to take a number of actions, including to confirm how many accounts or posts have been removed so far.

It also asked the social media platform to confirm whether it agreed that permitting the sale of Apetamin and similar supplements ‘stands at odds’ with its community guidelines.

The signatories requested information on what steps Instagram currently takes to protect users from content with the potential to ‘trigger or exacerbate body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders and other conditions’ – and what further steps it will now take to ‘protect the health and wellbeing of its users’.

The letter also asked Instagram whether it supports a recommendation from NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens that social media firms could contribute more financially to the provision of young people’s mental health services.

The Facebook company spokesperson said: ‘The wellbeing of our community is our top priority, and buying and selling non-medical or prescription drugs is strictly against our policies.

‘We remove accounts that sell Apetamin when we come aware of them and block related hashtags so this content is harder to find. We’ll continue working with law enforcement and youth organisations to help keep drugs sales of any kind off Instagram.’

This story first appeared on our sister title, Healthcare Leader.