Nov. 29, 2022 – Weight loss advice is everywhere you look on social media, but one trend sweeping TikTok has led to shortages of an important diabetes drug.
Ozempic, a weekly injection that helps boost insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes, also suppresses appetite, which leads to weight loss. Stories of celebrities using the drug off-label to lose a few pounds have led to an explosion of interest. And now people with diabetes – people whose lives could be saved by the drug – are having trouble finding it.
Kim Kardashian and Elon Musk
In the spring, Kim Kardashian pulled off a dramatic weight loss to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress for the Met Gala. Soon rumors began to circulate that she’d used Ozempic to do it. Just this week, new Twitter owner Elon Musk tweeted about his own use of Ozempic and its sibling drug, Wegovy.
Variety dubbed Ozempic “the worst kept secret in Hollywood – especially given that its most enthusiastic users are not pre-diabetic and do not require the drug.” The rich and famous are spending $1,200 to $1,500 a month to get access.
This raises concerns about who, exactly, is watching these videos, and what message they’re receiving.
“Forty-two percent of Americans have obesity, and even more have overweight. That’s affecting our younger people and our adolescents,” says Caroline Apovian, MD, co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “They’re looking at TikTok and other social media outlets for help.”
A new study shows how damaging this can be: Researchers analyzed 1,000 videos with nutrition, food, and weight-related hashtags, with over 1 billion views combined. They found that nearly all included messages glorifying weight loss and thinness.
At Last, an Effective Weight Loss Drug
Ozempic is Danish drug company Novo Nordisk’s brand name for semaglutide, which works by mimicking a naturally occurring hormone known as GLP-1. It travels to your brain and helps you feel full on less food. That leads to weight loss. In one 68-week study, semaglutide helped people lose an average of 15% of their body weight. But it’s not a miracle drug: You still have to change your eating habits and stay physically active.
The FDA approved Ozempic to treat people with type 2 diabetes in 2017. Four years later, Novo Nordisk received the green light for a higher-dose version meant specifically for people with obesity. Wegovy is approved for use only if you have a BMI of at least 27 with one or more weight-related ailments, or a BMI of 30 or more with none.
“These drugs are dominating my practice, because they’re so effective,” says Amanda Velazquez, MD, director of obesity medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The drug is considered safe, “so the majority of patients are good candidates.”
More Demand Than Supply
As word spread about how well Ozempic and Wegovy worked, social media posts helped drive even more people to seek out the drugs. Now demand is outpacing the supply – according to the FDA, starter doses of Ozempic will have limited availability through January.
“In Hollywood, people are losing 10 pounds, getting it for $1,500 a month, and depleting stores for people who have such severe obesity that they have congestive heart failure and diabetes,” Apovian says. “These are people who are going to die, and you’re taking it away just for cosmetic weight loss. That is deplorable.”
In addition to huge demand, Wegovy also had a disruption in its supply chain. Right now, it isn’t available at all in lower doses, which is helping to spike off-label demand for Ozempic. Novo Nordisk expects to have these problems sorted out by the end of the year, with distribution following soon after.
The Price of Access
With a list price of $1,350 a month, Wegovy costs as much as many mortgages. And Medicaid, Medicare, and many insurance companies don’t cover it. Although obesity is a disease, the insurance industry treats weight loss as more of a vanity issue – so even if you could find the drug, you might not be able to afford it.
“We’re seeing that roughly half the prescriptions we write aren’t being covered,” Apovian says. “And for the half that are covered, we have to do prior authorization, which takes days, and it’s laborious.” In some instances, she says, insurance companies withdraw authorization after 3 months if they don’t see enough weight coming off.
It’s not like you can take Wegovy for 3 months, lose some weight, and expect it to stay off, either. The medication requires a real commitment, potentially for life. That’s because once the semaglutide leaves your system, your appetite returns. In one study, people regained two-thirds of the weight they’d lost within a year of stopping.
Many see a double standard in the insurance companies’ refusal to cover a drug that could prevent serious illness or death.
“They’re saying it’s not cost-effective to give the 42% of Americans who have a BMI over 30 Wegovy. Did they say this when statins came out?” Apovian says. “Why are they doing this with antiobesity agents? It’s the culture. The culture isn’t ready to adopt obesity as the disease that it is.”
Unpleasant Side Effects
Let’s assume you’re one of the lucky ones – your insurance covers Wegovy, and you can actually find some. You might discover that using it is no walk in the park. Common side effects include gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
“The way we counteract that is to start very slowly at a low dose of these medications,” Apovian says. “We only go up when the patient doesn’t have nausea or it gets better.”
Elise Davenport was excited to try Wegovy. “I did my online research. I’m the type who’s interested in early adoption, tech gadgets and stuff,” says the 40-year-old technical writer. “I wanted to try it because I’d tried so many other things that failed, or hadn’t worked long-term.”
With a BMI over 30, Davenport qualified for the drug. She signed up for an online program that guaranteed insurance coverage and started taking it in October 2021. At first, the side effects were mild, just a touch of nausea and diarrhea. And the results were impressive. She found it easy to feel satisfied with smaller portions and lost her cravings for sugar and highly processed foods. The weight fell off, roughly 5 pounds a week.
It turns out, that’s too much, too fast. Apovian and Velazquez say their patients lose more like 2 pounds each week, with careful monitoring.
By early December, Davenport’s side effects were ramping up. Because of shortages in lower dosages, the online program wasn’t able to adjust hers right away. She felt nauseated all the time, bad enough that brushing her teeth made her vomit and she had to force herself to eat. Some weeks, she managed less than 500 calories a day. Her sleep patterns became erratic. And then her depression, which medication had kept under control for years, spiraled.
“I remember sitting on the floor of my bathroom crying, thinking I’d rather carry the extra weight,” she says. “I used to take a lot of enjoyment from food, and I had none of that anymore. It was such a joyless experience at that point.”
Eventually, her dosage was reduced and the symptoms let up, but her primary care doctor encouraged her to stop. By the time she did, in March, she’d lost 55 pounds. So far, she’s gained back about 10.
More Than Just Weight Loss
Even though Davenport’s experience wasn’t a good one, with better monitoring, she’d be willing to try again. For one thing, seeing how easy it was to eat less with medical help helped to undo years of shame.
“Our culture treats obesity like a moral failing. I realized I’d been made to feel that way by doctors and programs – that I wasn’t doing enough,” she says. “This drug made me realize there are legit physiological things going on in my body, things that are often excluded from the conversation.”
Apovian and Velazquez say their patients regularly discover similar things.
“Obesity is not a disease of willpower. Medications are not the easy way out,” Velazquez says. “This is a chronic, relapsing medical condition, and because of that, we should treat it how we treat diabetes, high blood pressure, all these other conditions. We’d never hold back medication for individuals coming in with high blood pressure, tell them to work on willpower and withhold drugs they’d qualify for.”