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'You forget to eat': How Ozempic went from diabetes medicine to blockbuster diet drug

ShantaQuilette Develle Carter-Williams, 44, was prescribed Ozempic after a stroke put her life in danger. The drug worked wonders — until she couldn't get it.
Cormeshia Batty
ShantaQuilette Develle Carter-Williams, 44, was prescribed Ozempic after a stroke put her life in danger. The drug worked wonders — until she couldn't get it.

The Oscars: The moment when Hollywood's most famous and glamorous gather to accept awards and show off their couture.

"Everybody looks great," remarked host Jimmy Kimmel, walking around the stage a few weeks ago, looking at all the famous faces.

"When I look around this room, I can't help but wonder: Is Ozempic right for me?"

There was some scattered laughter, but it seemed like maybe the joke hit a little too close to home. After all, Ozempic has been called "the worst-kept secret in Hollywood."

"The worst-kept secret in Hollywood"

In the last several months, Ozempic has exploded onto the scene, with everyone from Elon Musk to Chelsea Handler talking about taking versions of the drug.

"My doctor ... just hands it out to anybody," comedian Chelsea Handler said on a podcast.

But Ozempic's rise to superstardom status was not something most people predicted. In fact, the drug was created by Novo Nordisk to help diabetes patients control their blood sugar.

But the drug's side effect of rapid weight loss quickly stole headlines and made Ozempic a very hot commodity. So hot, it caused some problems for the people it was originally intended to help.

"I was willing to try anything"

Five years ago, ShantaQuilette Develle Carter-Williams had a health crisis. She had a stroke at age 39 and temporarily lost the use of her left side.

Carter-Williams is a stand-up comedian, writer and producer in Los Angeles and she couldn't work at all after her stroke.

"I was eating and gaining weight and I was just really concerned that if I do continue to keep this weight on, the possibilities of having another stroke are very high."

Her doctor suggested she try Ozempic to bring down her blood sugar and also help her lose weight and avoid another stroke.

"I had never heard of Ozempic," she recalls. "But, you know, I was willing to try anything."

"You actually forget to eat"

Ozempic and a similar drug, Wegovy, are weekly shots you give yourself that cause the body to produce insulin. Insulin lowers blood sugar, slows digestion and makes people feel full. Carter-Williams tried it and was amazed.

"You are not hungry," she says. "Like, I actually have to set timers to make sure that I do eat, because otherwise you actually forget to eat."

Carter-Williams' weight started to drop right away and her cholesterol and blood sugar levels started coming down. She and her doctor were thrilled. But almost as soon as she started seeing results, she ran into trouble.

"I was going to renew my dosage and they were like, 'Oh, we don't have it.'"

Carter-Williams started calling all over, but the only pharmacy she could find that had any in stock wouldn't take her insurance (this is reportedly a common issue with the drug). So instead of costing her $25 a month, the Ozempic prescription was going to cost $1,600 a month.

That was when Carter-Williams realized Ozempic was having a major moment.

"It was so popular," she recalls. "It was all over social media." Carter-Williams could not afford the high price, so she reluctantly went off of the drug. The weight she had lost came back and her blood sugar and cholesterol started climbing.

"That was hard," says Carter-Williams. "I mean, I wasn't using it to try and fit into my Oscar dress. I really needed it for my health. But I went a while without getting it."

Ozempic's popularity has a price

Dr. Jorge Rodriguez is a gastroenterologist in LA. He knew of Ozempic for diabetes treatment, but up until about a year ago had never heard of it being used for weight loss.

"I actually first heard about this use for Ozempic from a patient of mine who wanted me to prescribe it," he says.

Since that moment, Rodriguez has been asked to write prescriptions for the drug almost every week.

It is legal for doctors to prescribe a drug like Ozempic for an unofficial use, but Rodriguez sees Ozempic's popularity as a problem, especially since it can be really hard to find in a lot of places and insurance often won't cover it, meaning only people who can afford to pay $1,600 a month can get it.

"I won't prescribe it for weight loss," he says. "Using it in any other way restricts and harms the people that really benefit from it, which are the diabetics."

Rodriguez points out that Wegovy, another Novo Nordisk drug, has the same active ingredient as Ozempic and is FDA-approved for weight loss. Still, he says, it is meant for people who are in a life-threatening situation and he won't prescribe it in other cases.

Psst ... need some Ozempic?

This is especially true because any lost weight reportedly comes right back if you don't take Ozempic every week. That means people who start a prescription typically don't stop taking it, even when they reach the weight they want.

Also, since supplies have been low in some places, people have started paying exorbitant prices and going to extremes to get it, such as traveling to Canada and Mexico.

That wild demand has also sparked a whole new crop of businesses.

A bunch of telehealth companies have cropped up that offer pricey monthly subscriptions to weight loss services, which include access to Ozempic or a similar drug (though the drug is usually paid for separately).

One such service, Sequence, charges subscribers $100 a month. It was just purchased by Weight Watchers for more than $100 million, a sign that the multibillion-dollar weight loss industry is also getting in on the Ozempic game.

Side effects include ...?

Rodriguez says another concern he has revolves around health issues. He points out that Ozempic is a pretty new drug. The known side effects, such as extreme nausea, dehydration and headaches, might not be the whole story.

Rodriguez points to fen-phen, a wildly popular weight loss drug from the 1990s. "When fen-phen was available, almost everybody was on it," he recalls. "And one of the 'phens' is basically methamphetamine, which is speed."

Fen-phen caused long-term health effects for some users, including serious heart problems.

Still, Rodriguez says for diabetic patients, Ozempic is truly a very promising drug.

"It really is life-changing"

With the help of her doctor, Carter-Williams eventually managed to lock down a reliable supply of Ozempic, covered by insurance. And she saw what the fuss was about.

In the last 6 months, she has lost more than 60 pounds.

"I can tell that my body is operating differently," she says. "My blood pressure is better, my cholesterol is better. It really is life-changing."

Carter-Williams says people have noticed her weight loss and often ask her what her secret is. And when she tells them it's Ozempic? "They're like, 'Oh my God, I've been trying to get that!'" she says, laughing. "'Can you tell me how you got it?'"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.