Terry Prone: There will always be a public desire for the wellbeing ‘magic bullet’

Ozempic is up there with antibiotics in terms of its potential impact on the world

4th Mar 2024
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Originally published in the Irish Examiner.

Now, here’s a turndown for the books. A director stands down from a million-dollar entity, donates her substantial shareholding to a non-profit for free — and the value of the gift drops by a third, right there. It may be the first time in the history of capitalism that someone decided to give a present worth millions only to see it, instantly, drop in value by a third.

That’s what happened with Oprah Winfrey, who has slimmed down on one of the new diabetes/weight-loss drugs and who decided to get off the board of WW (formerly Weight Watchers) as a result. The chosen recipient of the shares being America’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Oprah seems to have removed herself from the board and shareholders of WW because of a fear of conflict of interest. Weight Watchers was founded by a woman named Jean Nidetch in 1963.

Nidetch, an overweight New Yorker, had tried everything, including hypnosis, various diets, and pills.

On one 10-week diet orchestrated by a medical institute, she lost weight but found the bossy presentation by the instructor intolerable.

This gave her an idea. She decided to invite some of her overweight friends to her home for a discussion about weight loss and mutual support. This grew as she lost roughly a third of her own bodyweight and didn’t regain it, and in no time at all had morphed into Weight Watchers.

Three years later, the first cookbook associated with the brand sold 1.5m copies. The Heinz company, having bought it in the 1980s, developed branded Weight Watcher meals.

At the turn of the century, Weight Watchers was still profitable, still popular: One of those forgiving franchises you could return to after you had broken all the rules that had got you to a thin point and needed to start all over again.

It did, however, face stiff competition from similar organisations and new approaches to eating. Then came apps and Fitbits and inevitably the franchise began shipping water. But along came Oprah, 10 years ago. She bought 10% of the equity, lost weight on its system, and became its spokesperson.

Which was all grand until the Ozempic revolution started. On this one, Oprah’s initial input, less than a year ago, was to articulate the traditional values-based argument that you really shouldn’t take pills to lose weight but rather gird your loins and show a bit of willpower, which sounded pretty good from a woman who was thinner than she’d been in a while.

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