Reshaping more than waistlines: Medicine in the age of Ozempic

Photo credit: Roberta Macedo

Oh-oh-oh, Ozempic.

Not since Botox has a drug brand become so popular so quickly.

Currently FDA-approved for the treatment of type-2 diabetes and clinical obesity, Ozempic and other similar GLP-1 receptor agonists provide life-saving medication.

However, these drugs stand as a new landmark in our diet-obsessed culture – revolutionary medicine that can actually help people lose their stubborn excess weight, unlike the fad diets and supplements that have inundated our lives and that mostly fail.

The problem is not Ozempic itself. There’s no doubt it can save the lives of those who need it by decreasing the risk of disease and increasing longevity. The problem is the misuse by people looking for fast solutions to cosmetic concerns without addressing the root of the issue.

Also, these miracle drugs are likely to distract from more seriously addressing our society’s stigma and shame around fatness, a social disorder that cannot be remedied by simply popping pills or injecting a medicine.

The Ozempic injection contains semaglutide, and works by stimulating insulin release to lower blood sugar levels and slow digestion, so users feel satiated for longer periods of time. Because it also subdues the user’s appetite, some seek out the drug to slim down.

Developed by the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk and approved by the FDA in 2017, Ozempic is one of several new medications used to treat obesity. When doctors noticed that patients were losing weight as a side effect, Novo Nordisk began clinical trials on obese and overweight individuals to confirm the observations. A higher dose semaglutide remedy specially to treat obesity, called Wegovy, was then marketed to treat America’s obesity epidemic, as about 40% of adults in the U.S. are obese and an additional 30% are overweight.

Ozempic was not originally intended as a quick fix to get thin. Medical discretion is used to prescribe it to those who require it, such as those who are obese or overweight. However, in some cases, patients who do not meet the criteria are still getting their hands on it.

The drugs have taken Hollywood by storm, forcing its unrealistic beauty standards to manifest themselves in stars taking extreme measures to keep up youthful appearances. Aesthetic procedures like cool sculpting, injections and Brazilian butt lifts allow celebrities to dictate trends, shape beauty standards and influence entire generations.

Ozempic and other similar drugs have become the subject of conversations about weight loss and thinness in Hollywood. An easy, painless and near-instant remedy is appealing, especially in the realms of fashion and entertainment where looking a certain way is a professional requirement.

All this is happening despite a significant change in the popular discourse on bodies since the end of the 20th century, when a slim figure was celebrated and sought after. We began to embrace body positivity and representation in curvy and plus-size models and influencers on social media.

When the craze for drugs began, countless celebrities started to lose noticeable amounts of weight. Which celebrities are using Ozempic became headline stories, as seen with Kim Kardashian losing 16 pounds in three weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress for the 2022 Met Gala. Only a select few have openly admitted to using these medications, as Elon Musk did about Wegovy.

The appeal of weight-loss drugs has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the average American adult gained 29 pounds . Losing excess weight could increase one’s life by decreasing risk of high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, having a stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.

“People still believe that it’s a personal choice and a lifestyle choice that somebody makes, and this is at fault for their obesity,” said Dr. Scott Butsch, director of Obesity Medicine at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.

Should obesity be perceived as a personal failing, a lack of adequate self-control and self-discipline? Or is it a chronic disease whose prevalence and severity are largely outside individual control?

BIPOC and low-income communities disproportionately experience higher levels of obesity, but lack the ability to pay out-of-pocket for medications such as Ozempic when insurance won’t contribute. How can we ensure access for those with a greater need for these therapies, rather than widening existing disparities?

A month-long Ozempic injection pen costs approximately $900 before insurance. Wegovy, only approved to treat obese/overweight patients or those with a coexisting condition related to weight, is more than $1,300 for a month’s supply. These costs can be made cheaper with qualifying insurance, but coverage can be hard to come by.

Hollywood elites, however, are willing and able to pay the full cost out of pocket, exhausting demand, overwhelming pharmacies and making it difficult for people who actually need the drug to get their prescriptions.

We also don’t understand how these drugs will impact users in the future. Common side effects users experience include nausea, vomiting, stomach-area pain and more. Severe allergic reactions, hypoglycemia and pancreatitis can also occur.

For those who only look at the immediate effects of these drugs, they are neglecting the risks associated with long-term usage, including how easy it is to regain any lost weight after treatment. These risks should only be taken if it is meant to protect your health, as recommended and prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner.

People tend to not change their habits when on these drugs, which can bring long-term adverse consequences for the short-sighted.

Although Ozempic has been approved and prescribed since 2017, Hollywood’s wholesale adoption of the drug turned it from being an essential medicine to a status symbol, advertising that dramatic weight loss is at our fingertips, readily available for those who can afford it.

Weight loss isn’t always a cure for all ills and can be a distraction from real issues. Unfortunately, fatphobia continues to pervade society and as long as it exists, there will be a market for miracle medicines that help make people thin.

Lia Mussie is a senior majoring in ecosystem science and policy and political science with minors sustainable business and public health.