Overcoming the Obesity Epidemic

In addition to physical consequences, many individuals face social stigma related to weight. They endure both overt and subtle social repercussions, from hurtful comments to rejection in various situations. "Fat shaming" is prevalent, even within the medical community, where overweight patients are more likely to receive advice for weight loss rather than treatment for medical conditions compared to those with lower BMIs.  New science is showing that issues with weight are often association with cognitive issues beyond the control of patients.  This has to become part of the conversation, as we move toward overcoming the obesity epidemic.

It starts with education.  Novo Nordisk recently launched WEGOVY, a medication to help patients address obesity, accompanied by patient education and communication programs. These initiatives, including non-branded elements, aim to raise awareness and foster understanding of the effects of obesity.  There are many myths to overcome.  This is not just a problem in the United States.  By 2035, Time Magazine reports that more than half of the world population will be obese.

Early DTC Efforts to Confront Stigmas

In the earliest days of DTC marketing, Prozac utilized advertising to demonstrate that medication could assist patients with depression. This marketing revolutionized the approach, empowering patients to engage in discussions with their doctors. Subsequent efforts by Zoloft and Cymbalta further contributed to alleviating the stigma associated with the condition. These medications educated depression patients about the root cause of their condition, often involving factors beyond their control.

Patients now know that certain substances in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, are correlated with depression.  Now they collaborate with healthcare professionals to restore the balance of brain chemicals using antidepressant medications. By eliminating blame in this area, the medical treatment of depression is increasing. Society now has a much more positive impression on the treatment of mental health.

It positively affected the lives of thousands of patients.  More recently, pharma is confronting other stigmas such as Overactive Bladder (OAB) and taboos related to Abnormal uterine bleeding (AUB).

Novo Nordisk Prepares to Take on the Stigma of Obesity

In June of 2021, WEGOVY was approved by the FDA for weight management. WEGOVY acts like a GLP-1 to help lower the appetite of patients and thus enable them to lose weight. Initial marketing by Novo concentrated on an education campaign that focused on stigma featuring a series of videos, called “Obesity Voices", These videos related that, "The hardest part of living with obesity..." followed by a long series of problems that people with obesity must face. They are judged by society.

While WEGOVY is a potential solution for patients, the cost of the medication (which is high) will make it inaccessible for many. This may change if insurance around this medication is adjusted. Meanwhile, Novo's efforts may potentially guide people who are unable to afford WEGOVY to other effective solutions. And it can help to reframe the issue of weight management in our society.  As of 2023, WEGOVY became one of the fastest growing patient facing medications - hitting $1B in sales per month.  There are mixed voices on the benefits of this medication.  The jury is still out on its longer term benefits.

Elevating Patients Out of Sorrow

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges such campaigns face is addressing the stigma without wallowing in it. Many years ago, the now famous Dove "Real Beauty" campaign began to address this weight issue as it related to fashion. The campaign rejoiced in the beauty of "Plus Size" women. And yet, the campaign was not relevant to a large percentage of this population. After all, Dove was dressing these women up as "Plus Size" models. This is a leap too far for many.


In its recent campaign, Novo is working with Queen Latifah to address this audience in a more grounded fashion. She says, “I’ve experienced being judged by others because of my weight. I know the negative effect it can have on you. But I never let that stop me, and neither should you.” (Fierce Pharma, November, 2021). She lends both star power and credibility to the effort, with communication happening on Instagram and a dedicated website. She presents her story in an authentic manner which will motivate patients.

"Bigger Than Me"

The "It’s Bigger Than Me” campaign was launched ahead of the wider-scale marketing effort for WEGOVY. Novo partnered with CVS Health to launch an obesity support program. This is running in tandem with a physician education site, "Rethink Obesity", that compliments this marketing effort. Novo believed that the synergy between these marketing efforts will spur rapid growth for WEGOVY. And they were right.  Soon after launch of these patient communication efforts, patient demand for WEGOVY was outstripping supply.

There are many approaches to weight issues that patients should consider.  Medication is only one of these.  Lifestyle, diet, excercise, etc. play a role.

Oprah Winfrey Joins The Chorus

In early 2024, Winfrey spoke at a conference about how medications can be used to help with weight loss.  She noted that she is leaving the Weight Watchers board.  She went to to say, “why do we need Weight Watchers when we’ve got Zepbound and Wegovy?”  She hosted a show on ABC called “Shame, Blame and the Weight Loss Revolution.”  She observed that, “the most vital thing is to get trusted information, and also: Let’s stop the shaming and blaming."  The latest science is suggesting that obesity is influenced more by biology rather than a lack of willpower. 

Phama communication about the issue is only part of the mix, as patient consider options and we work to overcome stigma associated with weight issues. Patient marketing can benefit sales of its brand. However, it is important that we all understand what weight loss means in our society. In the long run, anyone with weight issues can benefit from this consideration.