National Eating Disorders Association

OTC Diet Pills … A Deadly RX for Teens

Feeding Hope Fund Grant Recipient Publishes Research Findings; Proposes Tax on Diet Pills to Protect Youth From Harmful Products

New Study Estimates 20% Tax on Diet Pills Could Reduce Purchases by 18% in Households With Teens

NEW YORK CITY — June 4, 2018 — For Immediate Release — Dietary supplements used by millions of Americans can be dangerous, leading to as many as 23,000 emergency room visits a year, according to a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fully a third of these ER visits among girls and women result from weight-loss supplements alone. These products, which are widely available and sold over the counter (OTC), are not medically recommended, and the harms of these products are well-documented, yet there are no restrictions on their purchase.

A new study being published today in the journal Preventive Medicine by S. Bryn Austin, ScD, recipient of the National Eating Disorders Association's (NEDA) 2015 Feeding Hope Fund for Clinical Research grant, has identified a potential solution to help combat this prevalent issue and protect youth from harmful diet pills. Titled Could a Tax on Unhealthy Products Sold for Weight Loss Reduce Consumer Use? A Novel Estimation of Potential Taxation Effects, the newly released research found that a 20% tax on diet pills could reduce purchases by 18% in households with teens present.

Austin is Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital and Director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (www.hsph.harvard.edu/striped), based at Harvard.

Based on Austin’s research among households reporting at least one purchase of OTC diet pills and powders making weight-loss claims, a 20% higher average price of such weight-loss products was associated with a 5.2% decrease in purchases of those products. Among households with children ages 12- to 17-years-old present, purchases were 17.5% lower; and among households with a daughter present, purchases were 10.3% lower. Because a tax on diet pills and powders has yet to be adopted in the U.S., the study relied on standard simulation methods used by economists to estimate effects if a tax were imposed. The study found that taxation may be an effective public health strategy to reduce purchasing of potentially dangerous OTC drugs and supplements sold for weight loss, especially for households that include children ages 12- to 17-years-old or a daughter.

Commented Austin, “What many people don’t know is that these products are not prescreened for safety or efficacy by the FDA before they enter the market. For teens this can be an especially dangerous situation because they are likely to mistakenly believe if a product is sold at their local pharmacy or grocery that it must be safe and effective. But that could not be further from the truth. The good news is that with teens, taxes have been shown to be very effective in reducing their use of a harmful product. The effect of tobacco taxes on teen smoking is a perfect example. Our new study offers the best evidence yet that this public health strategy could be a powerful way to protect young people from dangerous diet pills.”

Said Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA, "We are grateful for the work conducted by Dr. Austin and all of NEDA's Feeding Hope Fund grant recipients. Diet pills and weight-loss supplements are dangerous and contribute to the epidemic rates of eating disorders we’re seeing among young people. Dr. Austin’s research shows that there are clear steps we can take to improve the health and wellbeing of our kids and I hope policy makers follow her recommendations."

The Feeding Hope Fund for Clinical Research provides grants to qualified clinical researchers who have been selected through a very competitive application process. These grants focus on innovative treatment research, prevention research and training dissemination research.

Eating disorders are real, complex and devastating conditions that can have serious mental, emotional and physical health consequences that affect people of all ages and backgrounds. By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape; and 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.  Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives.

Additional facts on dieting and eating disorders …

  • The diet industry reached approximately $66 billion in annual revenues in 2017, according to “The U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market (14th Edition)” released in December by Marketdata, a research firm that has tracked the U.S. weight loss market and published in-depth reports about its segments since 1989.
  • In elementary school, fewer than 25% of girls diet regularly. Yet those who do know what dieting involves and can talk about calorie restriction and food choices for weight loss fairly effectively (Smolak, 2011; Wertheim et al., 2009).
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Overweight girls are more likely than normal weight girls to engage in such extreme dieting (Boutelle, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Resnick, 2002; Neumark-Sztainer & Hannan, 2001; Wertheim et al., 2009).
  • Even among non-overweight girls, over one-third report dieting (Wertheim et al., 2009).
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005).
  • Of American, elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight (Martin, 2010).

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), headquartered in New York City, is the leading U.S. non-profit organization supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders. NEDA serves as a catalyst for prevention, cures and access to quality care. Each year, NEDA helps millions of people across the country find information and appropriate treatment resources through its toll-free, live helpline, its many outreach programs and website. NEDA advocates for advancements in the field and envisions a world without eating disorders. For more information, visit www.MyNEDA.org  

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