The Guardian

Obesity jab firm talked to minister about ‘profiling’ benefit claimants

Drug firm Novo Nordisk proposed targeting its weight-loss injection at those people most likely to return to work

Shanti Das & Jon Ungoed-Thomas

Obesity jab maker Novo Nordisk suggested to senior government officials that they could “profile” benefit claimants so that those most likely to return to work could be targeted with its weight-loss injections.

Internal documents obtained by the Observer reveal that Pinder Sahota, corporate vice-president of Novo Nordisk UK, told the then health secretary, England’s chief medical officer and Treasury officials that “data from the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] could help profile those who are most likely to return to the labour market”.

Another Novo Nordisk figure, chief executive Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, “noted a need” to “target the right cohort to drive labour market activity, such as those on the tipping point of employability where obesity is the driver to leaving the labour market”.

The comments were made during a private meeting of Novo Nordisk executives with senior policymakers earlier this year, shortly after Novo Nordisk’s obesity jab Wegovy was recommended for NHS use in England by health watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).

Steve Barclay, then health secretary, is understood to have invited Sahota, Jørgensen and other Novo Nordisk executives for a meeting at the Department of Health and Social Care on 21 March to discuss a pilot scheme to improve obesity care in the UK.

They were joined by England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, Treasury officials and Prof Sir John Bell, an Oxford academic who sits on the Novo Nordisk-Oxford strategic alliance committee, according to meeting minutes released under freedom of information laws.

During the meeting, attendees discussed the potential socioeconomic benefits of making weight-loss injections available in a community-based pilot scheme alongside “wraparound support”, such as back-to-work counselling.

Government officials asked Novo Nordisk whether continuing pilots involving Wegovy were assessing the labour market impact, which Novo Nordisk said they were not. A Treasury official said the government would “value a clearer sense of timings”, including how quickly a pilot to assess economic impacts could be set up and “generate results”.

Martin Holst Lange, executive vicepresident of development at Novo Nordisk, went on to say that “economic benefits could arise as soon as health benefits” if a communitybased pilot scheme were to be established. Jørgensen and Sahota then made the comments about targeting certain benefit claimants.

It is not clear whether Novo Nordisk’s suggestion of targeting interventions at certain benefit claimants was taken forward by the government. The Department of Health said this weekend that it had no plans to use DWP data to profile benefit claimants.

The comments about targeting benefit claimants do not appear to have been challenged by anyone who was in attendance. According to the minutes, the meeting closed with Jørgensen saying that he sensed a “keen interest from the government, with further details to resolve but a shared vision”.

Barclay – who was moved from his health department role and installed as environment secretary last week in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle – responded by saying that the work “speaks to the government’s primary strategic objective on levelling up” and by thanking Novo Nordisk for what was a “hugely helpful discussion on shared objectives”.

This weekend, Novo Nordisk said it rebutted any suggestions of “unethical behaviour”. It did not deny that the comments about profiling benefit claimants had been made but said discussions about a pilot had been led by the government, with the company not involved in designing or delivering any such scheme.

“Misrepresentation of discussions with partners, when taken out of their rightful context, only serves to distort the truth and harmfully affect those living with obesity and their access to healthcare,” a spokesperson said.

“As invited consultees, Novo Nordisk provided the UK government with perspectives on economic inactivity and the opportunities within obesity to help people to live healthier, more productive lives.”