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WeightWatchers and Noom to offer prescription weight loss drugs

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The WeightWatchers way is pretty well known by now. Join up, eat according to a point system, connect with other members and, hopefully, lose weight. That has basically been their model for the last 60 years. But a new class of drugs known by names like Ozempic and Wegovy has changed everything. Originally developed to regulate Type 2 diabetes, these drugs cause weight loss. And now WeightWatchers is getting in on the prescription game. Maria Aspan is a senior writer for Fortune, where she's been following the story. Welcome.

MARIA ASPAN: Thanks so much, Juana. It's great to be here.

SUMMERS: So, Maria, WeightWatchers is in the business of selling weight loss. Can you tell us about the business rationale behind this decision to move into offering weight loss medications?

ASPAN: Sure. So WeightWatchers has weathered lots and lots of fads over the course of its history, but these drugs are just everywhere, you know, in pop culture, in business. And we've seen both WeightWatchers and a newer dieting company called Noom embrace these drugs, sometimes known as GLP-1s, in the past year. And for both of these companies, it's kind of an acknowledgement that the diet industry is moving on and that these drugs are inevitable, and if they don't get on board, they might be left behind.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I mean, Maria, for any of us who have struggled with our own weight and turned to places like WeightWatchers or Noom for help and support, this kind of feels like a big about-face. This is diametrically opposed to what places like WeightWatchers have told their clients for years now about how to sustainably and effectively lose weight. In your conversations, is that something that WeightWatchers' leadership is thinking about?

ASPAN: Yeah, it is. And I would agree. You know, these - WeightWatchers, again, has been around for 60 years, basically telling us all, well, you just have to do the work. And now executives say, the CEO says, well, you know, the science has evolved and so we are, too. I think they're trying to thread the needle of showing that their old way is still useful while accepting that there are these new technologies, new medications out there that are just fundamentally more effective than their core product has been shown to be. There are also a lot of reasons why people might not want to take, you know, these so-called miracle drugs or might not have access to them or might not be able to afford them. So there's still potentially a place for the sort of historical, traditional businesses of what WeightWatchers and Noom have sold. But they're very clearly betting on trying to embrace the new without completely losing all of their customers who have liked the old.

SUMMERS: Over the last several years, we've started to see a small societal shift towards body positivity and a real de-emphasis on diet culture, which can be harmful to many people's mental health. Are there concerns that big companies like WeightWatchers and Noom, their making these drugs more available could lead to renewed discrimination against people who are living in bigger bodies?

ASPAN: Absolutely. That was one of the first concerns raised by Tigress Osborn, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. You know, she pointed out that the presence of these drugs, the availability of these drugs, has actually, in her experience and perspective - has actually increased the stigma and discrimination towards fat people because, you know, before, it might have been, oh, well, you just haven't put in the work to lose the weight. Now it's even easier to lose the weight. You could just take this miracle drug, and, you know, you're just lazy that you haven't done it.

So there is a real concern that, you know, the drugs are made by pharmaceutical companies that are not generally household names, but WeightWatchers - everybody knows it. Noom is, again, a newer company but something that a lot of people have heard of. And Osborn and others are concerned that by having these household names embrace these drugs and promote and sell these drugs, it's going to actually damage a lot of the work that the fat acceptance and body positivity movements have done.

SUMMERS: That was Maria Aspan, senior writer at Fortune. Thank you.

ASPAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tyler Bartlam
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.