The fascination with the drug shows no signs of stopping.
Commuters transferring from the N to 1 subway trains at New York’s Times Square are typically greeted by poster-sized ads for everything from ergonomic pillows to fried chicken. But recently, the packed tunnel between platforms has been showing a series of giant ads touting something more unusual: “a weekly shot to lose weight.” Yep, Ozempic ads, right in the middle of the subway.
But technically, those subway ads aren’t for brand-name Ozempic and Wegovy medications specifically. Instead, they’re from a company called Roman (or Ro as it seems to have nicknamed itself), a telehealth company with sleek millennial sans-serif-font branding. Now that the months-long Ozempic shortage appears to be over, weight-loss shots — prescribed not during in-person doctor’s visits, but rather via telehealth appointments— are apparently the next extension of this craze. And companies are moving quickly to cash in.
Despite the high price tag of the injections, demand for the drug hasn’t cooled. As recently as mid-March, news outlets were reporting that people were so eager to get their hands on it, they were turning to compounding pharmacies to mix up semaglutide — even if that meant possibly injecting themselves with an unapproved version of the drug or a diluted, and less effective, mixture.
A Google search for “Ozempic telehealth” reveals a number of companies, including PlushCare, K Health, and Sesame, offering easier access to Ozempic for as low as $29 a month. In January, Ro announced it would be launching a weight-loss program that provides access to GLP-1 medications. Then, in March came an even more surprising development: WeightWatchers announced it was acquiring Sequence, a telehealth company that connects subscribers with healthcare providers who specialize in chronic weight management, including prescribing GLP-1s, the class of medications Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro fall under.
“WeightWatchers doesn’t give a damn about their members,” wrote one Twitter user. “The majority of their studio workshops are being canceled. They are now supporting the use of medication (Ozempic) for weight loss by purchasing Sequence, a telehealth subscription service.”
Some eyed the move with surprise: WeightWatchers’ hallmark has been encouragement toward a more self-driven type of weight loss — not for embracing what many might view as a “quick fix.” But the company’s purchase also nods to the fact that for some, weight loss isn’t always as simple as making so-called healthier choices. “WeightWatchers’ nutrition and behavior-change program can provide the support needed to help people build livable healthy habits for the long term and manage the dietary-induced side effects often felt while taking chronic weight management medications, such as glucagon-like peptide-1s (GLP-1s),” Gary Foster, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer of WeightWatchers, said in a press release. He also added that WeightWatchers would tailor its program for members using these drugs.
Not everyone’s excited that these weight-loss drugs will soon be more widely available. “People are seeing semaglutides as the key to helping people lose weight when we really don’t know if that’s true,” Dori Steinberg, PhD, RD and VP of Research at Equip, tells Katie Couric Media. “And at what cost?”
There’s been growing concern about people using the drug without physician supervision, all in the name of losing a few pounds — which, to be clear, is different from being prescribed it by a doctor for diabetes or chronic weight management. To that point, these telehealth sites do appear to require some kind of screening from a medical professional. And Dr. Foster told the Wall Street Journal that WeightWatchers does not intend to enable misuse: “We have no interest in prescribing medications to those who are trying to lose 10 pounds for a reunion,” he said. According to Sequence’s website, users on average lost 15% of their body weight. And Dr. Foster told the Wall Street Journal that WeightWatchers members lose five to six percent of their body weight on average over six months.
The side effects of Ozempic and Wegovy can range from nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting to unwanted volume loss in the face, and more, and although Wegovy is FDA approved for chronic weight management, its risks haven’t been studied for small amounts of weight loss. “If you’re trying to take this just to lose 15 pounds in the short term, we have no idea about the impacts on health,” says Steinberg. “There’s a lot of concern about just how widespread it’s becoming in a very short period of time.”
Even though a growing body of research shows that weight is not the ultimate marker of health and that the BMI scale is deeply flawed, we as a society are still deeply obsessed with losing weight, ideally quickly, at any cost. A March 2023 New Yorker article asks, “Will the Ozempic Era Change How We Think About Being Fat and Being Thin?” While the piece does make a good point that Ozempic and its ilk may shift our thinking away from the idea that fatness is synonymous with laziness — because the drug alters people’s appetites and the way signals about eating are sent to the brain — the hype surrounding semaglutide is not actually challenging the perception that thinness is inherently good and desirable.
Says Steinberg, “If we’re trying to make their blood pressure better controlled or improving their mental health or improving their sleep, this medicine is not going to get us there.” And while many doctors say that Ozempic is perfectly safe, the fixation on it may cause harm on a more cultural level — which isn’t the drug’s fault.
“I think it’s a regression,” says Steinberg of the Ozempic craze. “It’s going to set us back on how we’re viewing bodies and health, and it’s going to increase stigma. It’s going to increase disordered eating.”