TikTok allowed content promoting prescription drugs as weight loss aids to reach teenagers, according to a report by The Pharmaceutical Journal.
The journal set up a new TikTok account, indicating to the platform that the user was a 16-year-old girl and began searching for content under #dietpills, looking closely at the top 100 posts. Of the 100 videos, researchers found that nearly a third promoted diet pills for weight loss. Under the “diet pills” term, organic posts named prescription drugs for epilepsy, migraines, and addiction. Some of the posts flagged by the journal to TikTok were eventually removed, The Guardian reports.
In 2020, the company updated its policies by banning ads for fasting apps and weight loss supplements and limiting ads for “weight management products” to users 18 and up. Yet the test account by The Pharmaceutical Journal was able to find posts selling diet pills. Some users also made daily video diaries as they took the medication or shared before and after photos to show apparent weight loss.
Healthcare experts told The Pharmaceutical Journal that unproven diet claims can be dangerous for adults as well as teenagers.
TikTok didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Verge, but told The Guardian that the promotion or trade of controlled substances, including prescription weight loss medication, isn’t allowed on the platform and that content violating that policy will be removed.
The issue of medical treatments marketed as a way to lose weight has come up before on TikTok. In January, the platform — along with Instagram — pulled ads from healthcare startup Cerebral that associated obesity with ADHD, saying patients may be able to “stop overeating” by seeking treatment for ADHD.
TikTok has been forced to respond to harmful dieting content on its platform in the past. A detailed report by The Wall Street Journal in 2021 showed how TikTok’s algorithm pushed young girls toward dieting and weight loss videos, sending them down potentially dangerous rabbit holes. A day before the story was published, TikTok announced it was working on “diversifying recommendations” so users weren’t flooded with a series of similar content.