Social Media Is Fueling Enthusiasm for New Weight Loss Drugs. Are Regulators Watching?
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Suzette Zuena is her own best advertisement for weight loss.
Zuena, the “founder/visionary” of LH Spa & Rejuvenation in Livingston and Madison, New Jersey, has dropped 30 pounds. Her husband has lost 42 pounds.
“We go out a lot,” Zuena said of the pair’s social routine. “People saw us basically shrinking.” They would ask how the couple did it. Her response: Point people to her spa and a relatively new type of medication — GLP-1 agonists, a class of drug that’s become a weight loss phenomenon.
But she’s not just spreading her message in person. She’s also doing it on Instagram. And she’s not alone. A chorus of voices is singing these drugs’ praises. Last summer, investment bank Morgan Stanley found mentions of one of these drugs on TikTok had tripled. People are streaming into doctors’ office to inquire about what they’ve heard are miracle drugs.
What these patients have heard, doctors said, is nonstop hype, even misinformation, from social media influencers. “I’ll catch people asking for the skinny pen, the weight loss shot, or Ozempic,” said Priya Jaisinghani, an endocrinologist and clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
Competition to claim a market that could be worth $100 billion a year for drugmakers alone has triggered a wave of advertising that has provoked the concern of regulators and doctors worldwide. But their tools for curbing the ads that go too far are limited — especially when it comes to social media. Regulatory systems are most interested in pharma’s claims, not necessarily those of doctors or their enthused patients.
Few drugs of this type are approved by the FDA for weight loss — they include Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy. But after shortages made that treatment harder to get, patients turned to other pharmaceuticals — like Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic and Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro — that are approved only for Type 2 diabetes. Those are often used off-label — though you wouldn’t hear that from many of their online boosters.
The drugs have shown promising clinical results, Jaisinghani and her peers emphasize. Patients can lose as much as 15% of their body weight. Novo Nordisk is sponsoring research to examine whether Wegovy causes reductions in the rate of heart attacks for patients with obesity.
The medications, though, come at a high price. Wegovy runs patients paying cash at least $1,305 a month in the Washington, D.C., area, according to a GoodRx search in late March. Insurers only sometimes cover the cost. And patients typically regain much of their lost weight after they stop taking it.