The Obesity Revolution
New weight loss drugs are changing the narrative on obesity, with a push from pharma
By Elaine Chen and Matthew Herper, Stat News, March 5, 2023
A two-part message is permeating the halls of medicine and the fabric of society, sliding into medical school lectures, pediatricians’ offices, happy hours and social feeds: Obesity is a chronic biological disease — and it’s treatable with a new class of medications.
The condition has long been framed as a result of poor lifestyle decisions and a failure of willpower — eating too much and exercising too little. But a new generation of highly effective obesity medications, and the overt and subtle messaging from the pharmaceutical companies making them, are starting to change the narrative…
The new obesity drugs are in a class called incretin mimetics or GLP-1 based drugs, which emulate the effects of a hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1 that can help people feel full. They can lead to a startling amount of weight loss, up to a fifth of body mass, but have to be taken regularly by injection to avoid regaining pounds. They could reach staggering numbers of people: the worldwide obesity rate has surged to 13%, nearly tripling since 1975. In the U.S., 42% of adults and 20% of children are estimated to have obesity… [end quote]
Notice the change in phrasing from the old “people are obese” to “people have obesity,” reframing obesity as a disease. If obesity is a disease, drugs to treat it should be covered by insurance, similar to drugs to treat diabetes. And, in fact, some GLP-1 based drugs are already FDA-approved to treat diabetes.
Wegovy is sold by Novo Nordisk. Pfizer, which is developing an oral (instead of injected) GLP-1 drug, estimates a market of $100 billion annually within a decade. This is truly Macroeconomic impact since it would affect a huge swath of the population and burden everyone who either pays for the drugs out of pocket or the insurance that funds the purchases.
It’s ironical that the problem of obesity could be solved simply by eating the way our great-grandparents did in the days before processed and fast food. In the words of the food writer, Michael Pollan, “Eat food. [Whole, not processed, food.] Not too much. Mostly plants.”
But the medical profession has given up on getting the population to avoid cheap, convenient, ultrapalatable, highly addictive processed foods. Instead, they said, “If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em” and redefined obesity as an illness for which people are not personally responsible but can be treated medically.
As investors, we can ride this train. At the same time that we cook our healthful, whole foods meals.