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Friday, April 12, 2024

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Ozempic: The morality of miracle medicine

If you haven’t seen the commercials unsubtly played to the tune of the 1970s hit "It's Magic," you may recognize Ozempic from celebrity weight loss journeys. From Kim Kardashian to Elon Musk, some of pop culture's most influential figures have allegedly lost weight using Ozempic.

But this medication is more than just a new weight loss fad for rich influencers. It has the potential to completely transform how we treat the biggest healthcare problem in the United States.

Doctors and patients have struggled to treat obesity and diabetes for decades. Obesity rates tripled over the past 60 years, and one in every $4 spent on United States healthcare costs is spent treating people with diabetes. Although these metrics are not without their flaws, it is undeniable that obesity and related complications are among the most impactful and expensive healthcare challenges in our country.

Drugs like semaglutide or Ozempic — the brand name and popular umbrella term for these new diabetes and weight loss drugs — are revolutionary. For the first time in history, we can safely and effectively treat obesity, a chief U.S. health concern.

There are three main drugs in this new category: Ozempic, Wegovy and Mounjaro. The first two are brand names for semaglutide, and Mounjaro is the brand name for tirzepatide. Ozempic and Mounjaro are only approved for Type 2 diabetes, but all three have shown powerful weight loss results with few temporary side effects. In a 17-month clinical trial, Mounjaro helped a 230-pound obese person lose 50 pounds. 

Ozempic and Wegovy are GLP-1 agonists, which means they mimic a naturally occurring hormone we release in response to food intake. After you eat a meal, GLP-1 triggers an insulin release to bring your blood sugar back to normal levels. It also suppresses appetite and controls when stomach contents empty into the small intestine. The hormone is a satiation signal that helps start our bodies' regulation after a meal. Mounjaro mimics GLP-1 and GIP — another hormone proven to decrease food intake.

Healthy individuals release GLP-1 after an appropriate amount of food. However, our bodies are constantly reacting to how we behave. If you continue eating after your body signals you to stop, you're telling your body the hormones were incorrectly released. People with obesity secrete less GLP-1, fueling the cycle of poor eating habits.

Ozempic helps patients regain normal GLP-1 secretion, which helps Type 2 diabetics regulate insulin levels and control eating habits. Patients will make themselves a regular-sized dinner, eat half of it and have no appetite for the rest. People who used to snack nonstop become disgusted by the ultra-processed foods they once loved

There's good reason endocrinologists and users hail these medicines as miraculous. Writer Paul Ford, who describes himself as a “living embodiment of gluttony,” wrote about how easily Mounjaro turned off his appetite through "baptism by injection."

Although Ozempic is only approved for treating Type 2 diabetes, there are plenty of loopholes for those who can afford them. A month's supply of Ozempic, Wegovy or Mounjaro costs around $1,000 out of pocket, a hefty price tag for safe weight loss. 

Consider two hypothetical college friends, Ellie and Lilly. They both want to be thinner, but they also want to be happy with the bodies they have. Neither of them is severely overweight. 

Their excess weight affects their mental health more than their physical health. They both hear about Ozempic, but only Ellie can afford it. 

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Ellie gets a prescription for prediabetes and loses her unwanted pounds. Ellie still tells Lilly she should be proud of her body. But as Lilly watches Ellie actively avoid her body with Ozempic, it’s hard for Lilly to believe her. And when the most influential celebrities do the same thing, it feels like “all bodies are beautiful” applies to thinner bodies more than others.

This is the ethical dilemma with Ozempic. We live in a country of rampant overnutrition but also a focus on image. It's a recipe for anxiety. On one hand, Ozempic safely and effectively helps people lose weight. But on the other, it reinforces body image insecurities among young people like Lilly.

Morality concerns are unlikely to stop the Ozempic craze. Profit-focused telehealth companies will prescribe it after a 15-minute phone call. Even ethical doctors will prescribe it to patients who want it mainly for appearance purposes. I can't blame them.

Think again about Ellie. If she were your patient and asked for a prescription, would you say no? Ozempic would prevent weight gain and related health issues, and it would help her feel better about her body. It's much healthier than disordered eating or taking Adderall, an appetite-suppressing mixture of amphetamines. On top of these reasons, she'll pay you a thousand bucks a month!

Can we stop treating millions of diabetic and obese patients because Ozempic perpetuates beauty standards? Of course not. I wholeheartedly believe these medicines will have a profoundly positive effect on U.S. health that vastly outweighs their harm. But I also think their massive impact will blind some doctors to potential harms.

Losing weight is hard. Ozempic makes it easy. For some, Ozempic makes it possible. 

I don’t know what will happen to people like Lilly. But I do know that the Ozempic craze is taking off, and this is just the beginning.

Alex Clark is a junior studying neurobiology and economics. Do you think Ozempic poses questions regarding medicinal ethics? Send all comments to

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