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It’s rare that the presentation of the results of medical studies attract standing-room-only crowds. But that was the case a couple of weeks ago in Philadelphia, when medical professionals and media alike packed a ballroom at an American Heart Association meeting.
They were there to hear the news that Wegovy, one of a new group of massively popular weight-loss medications, could not only make patients a lot thinner and cut their risk of diabetes, but also reduce the chance of death from heart attack or stroke by 20 per cent.
Not since the rise of cholesterol-reducing statins, or perhaps even pain medications like Advil, has a group of pharmaceuticals so captured the public imagination. Wegovy, and its better known cousin Ozempic, are “semaglutides,” a class of drugs that slow digestion and mimic the effects of natural appetite-reducing hormones. First commercialised by Danish insulin maker NovoNordisk, they are now being developed and rolled out by many major pharmaceutical companies. Not only do they lead to an average 15-20 per cent weight loss in obese patients, they also appear to protect the heart, liver and kidneys, organs which are often put under strain by excess weight.
Prescriptions for these drugs are up a whopping 300 per cent in the US since 2020, despite the fact that they can cost between $300 and $1,300 per month. Bank of America expects 48mn Americans (about one-seventh of the population) to be on the meds by 2030.
This reflects not only the fact that three-quarters of the US population is overweight, but also the impact of intense media interest in the drugs. They are being used not only by the truly overweight and/or diabetic patients for whom they were developed, but by Hollywood stars and others who believe you can never be too rich or too thin.
Pre-diabetic patients are going on them to avoid more serious illness. Psychiatrists are doling out prescriptions to patients whose antidepressants have caused them to put on weight. WeightWatchers has acquired a telemedicine company to start prescribing semaglutides via Zoom.
Any number of other companies in industries ranging from fast food to insurance to health and fitness are seeing their core business models disrupted by drugs that seem to fundamentally change how much people want to eat.
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