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Economy & Tech

EDITORIAL | Stop Dieters from Hijacking Diabetes Drugs from Real Patients

The health ministry and industry must act to end the risk of new diabetes treatments becoming scarce due to diversion to help non-diabetic dieters lose weight.

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Exterior of Central Government Bldg. No.5 in Tokyo, which houses the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. ©The Sankei Shimbun)

Recently there have been a series of cases in which certain drugs designed to treat diabetes have been inappropriately used. Beauty clinics and other facilities have used them as "diet drugs". As a result, these medicines have not reached the patients they were originally intended for. 

It appears that in some cases individuals taking the drugs to lose weight have paid for the full cost of the treatment. Meanwhile, in other cases, health insurance has helped pay for the drugs. 

We must prevent situations in which people who truly need these drugs cannot obtain them because they have been diverted to people who want to use them to lose weight. 

Ethical Use of Diabetes Drugs

The drugs in question are of the type known as GLP-1 receptor agonists. They stimulate the pancreas to release the insulin needed to lower blood glucose levels. Incidentally, they also suppress a person's appetite. Among the reported side effects are low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and acute pancreatitis. 

The risks are also greater for non-diabetics who take these drugs. If doctors, who are supposed to protect the health of the public, prescribe drugs for purposes other than they were intended for, they are without question acting counter to "medical ethics." Such use other than for the intended purpose should be strictly prohibited. 

A page on Chinese SNS promotes weight loss through the effects of diabetes drugs (©Kyodo)

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has issued advice on this. It has requested that medical care facilities and pharmacies use the drugs properly. In addition, it has asked wholesalers not to deliver drugs to healthcare facilities and pharmacies that are using them for purposes other than what they were originally intended for. 

That alone is insufficient. The pharmaceutical industry and wholesalers also have a social responsibility to work to ensure a stable supply of these drugs for diabetes patients.  

Preventing Abuse

Inspections of medical fee statements submitted by medical institutions were carried out by the Federation of Health Insurance Societies (Kenporen). This is a federation of various health insurance associations in which company employees are enrolled. Their inspections discovered some receipts in which these drugs were administered without performing the necessary tests for diabetes treatment. 

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The health ministry must work with the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry, and the distribution sector to quickly establish a mechanism to prevent such improper use. 

We should be concerned that using these drugs for purposes other than diabetes conditions may spread in the future. 

That is because a drug of this same type that is intended for use in treating "obesity" was newly approved and will be covered by insurance. But "obesity" is a disease complicated by health problems, not simply being overweight. We cannot allow the new drug to be prescribed simply to facilitate weight loss.

In Europe and the United States, where the drugs first went on sale, their weight loss effects have garnered considerable attention. As a consequence, their popularity has become overheated, resulting in product shortages. 

In Japan as well, several manufacturers are producing and selling these drugs in injectable and oral forms.

The internet is filled with ads making bold claims with no scientific basis. For example, "Safe since it is recognized as an obesity drug in Western countries" or "Taking this medicine is all you need to do to diet." 

We also need more vigorous policing of this kind of deceptive advertising. 

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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