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The real winner of the Ozempic craze? Big Pharma

Corporations have a long history of manipulating beauty standards for profit, and now a new class of weight-loss drugs is helping pharmaceutical companies line their pockets

It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without beauty standards. But while they may seem like an inescapable part of life, they don’t appear out of thin air. They’re the product of a series of historical and material conditions driving what we collectively come to value in society. And under capitalism, the profit-motivations of the market mean we’ll continue to be trapped in the endless cycle of constantly fluctuating beauty standards calling for BBLs one day and Ozempic shots the next. 

The history of companies manufacturing new beauty standards, particularly for women, in order to make a profit is well-documented. In the mid-1910s, Gillette, looking to widen their audience, launched the first razor marketed to women and initiated the expectation of hairless legs and underarms that would continue for the next 100 years. Prior to the release of the women’s razor, there were no cultural expectations that body hair was unhygienic or unattractive. Gillette did not meet demand, it created it – as did L’Oréal, which introduced the weekly hair washing routine, and Helena Rubenstein, who developed the idea of “skin types” to sell cosmetics.

Beauty standards for bodies have cycled throughout history and with each of these “new” beauty ideal comes, conveniently, an onslaught of products and services promising to offer results, and fast. In the late 19th century, women in Paris would paint the veins on their arms and necks blue with a highlighting stick to appear more pale and sickly, a look that would come back around in the 90s “heroin chic” trend. Meanwhile, the supplements sold to women in the 1950s to achieve curvier bodies mirror products like Apetamin which promised to help people achieve the “slim-thick” Kardashian bodies of the 2010s. 

The latest of these products is Semaglutide, sold under branded names Ozempic and Wegovy. Despite its growing list of negative side effects – vomiting and nausea, loss of feelings of pleasure, potential paralysis of the stomach and possible links to suicidal thoughts and self-harm – sales have shot through the roof, launching manufacturer Novo Nordisk’s $413B market value to exceed the entire GDP of Denmark, the country that hosts the company. In fact, Novo Nordisk has made so much profit it’s pushed up the value of the Danish krone and driven down mortgage rates in the country.

So what’s driving Ozempic’s wild popularity as a quick and dirty weight loss strategy? Most have pointed to social obsession with thinness as the culprit. However, viewing the Ozempic mania purely from the demand side – people want to be thin, so they create demand for easy weight loss solutions – misses the forest for the trees. After all, with all this social pressure for weight loss, who stands to gain? 

A survey of 1,000 Americans by The Intake found that while 24 per cent of Ozempic-curious respondents attributed their interest in the drug to social media, it paled in comparison to doctor recommendations. 41 per cent of respondents claimed that their interest in Ozempic was due to a recommendation from their doctor. 18 per cent of medical practitioners surveyed reported prescribing the drug for weight loss. Maybe it’s not only weight loss obsession driving demand, but a flood of Big Pharma marketing behind the newfound interest in semaglutide. In the global capitalist economy, pharmaceutical companies are out for one thing: profit. 

Pharmaceutical companies’ placement of profits over people is nothing new. Perhaps the most notorious example is found in the opioid epidemic. In 2020, Purdue Pharma, the producer of opioid painkiller OxyContin, pled guilty to federal charges relating to the aggressive sale and marketing of opioids. With the assistance of major consulting firms like McKinsey, Purdue and other pharmaceutical giants flooded the healthcare system with over-prescription of opioid-based painkillers. Together, they knowingly sought to curtail doctors’ hesitancy to make medically unnecessary prescriptions and manufactured a drug crisis that robbed over half a million people of their lives.

When it comes to weight loss drugs, over the years pharmaceutical companies have pushed products like amphetamines, Obetrol and fen-phen, all of which were later found to have dangerous, if not deadly, side effects. Of course, Ozempic has only a fraction of the risks of OxyContin. But are the nefarious marketing tactics behind them really all that different? Between partnerships with millennial-minimalist telehealth companies, which often lack follow-up mechanisms to monitor side effects, flooding cities like New York with advertising – on the sides of buses, the stairs of the subway – and the company’s own “savings card” as if it were a coffee loyalty program, semaglutide’s popularity is no accident.

“The spectacle is able to subject human beings to itself because the economy has already totally subjugated them,” Marxist philosopher Guy Debord wrote in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. In other words, the total control that a capitalist consumer economy exerts over the masses then bleeds into the control exerted by social “spectacles” – i.e. pop culture, mass media, advertising, celebrities – on human beings. “It is nothing other than the economy developing for itself.”

The proliferation of Ozempic and the $78 billion weight loss industry at large is an example of how an economic system built on the need for infinite expansion will ultimately find itself seeping into every nook and cranny of our lives. A capitalist system is therefore incentivised to artificially produce demand for such products. Insecurity provides a highly profitable consumer base – in other words, it’s not that an inherently skinny-obsessed culture produces demand for drugs like Ozempic. It’s that a capitalist system saw an opportunity to make money and took it. 

The massive profits of weight-loss drugs are already proving not enough for shareholders. Drug manufacturers are now racing to develop a pill form of semaglutide to make it more palatable to the public, as it is currently only available as an injectable, which can turn many users off. The pill form, however, will likely include a much higher dose of the active ingredient, jumping from 2.4mg of semaglutide in the current injectable to 50mg in the pill. Novo Nordisk’s clinical trial of the pill found that, among users who were overweight or obese but did not have diabetes, 80 per cent reported gastrointestinal issues – nearly twice as many as the control group. 

We can’t tackle the “corporate greed” of Big Pharma or eliminate industries built on sowing insecurities without tackling the entire capitalist system that produces them.

While modern medicine has made powerful advances in treatment for a wide variety of medical conditions, the unfortunate reality of the pharmaceutical industry is that it is required by the capitalist system to put profit over people. No one was rushing, for example, to create various different forms of semaglutide when it was just a medication for diabetes, the condition it was originally developed to treat. And if one pharmaceutical company didn’t push for profits at all costs, it would simply be beaten out by a competitor who would. 

As Marxist sociologist Vivek Chibber argues, “Capitalists aren’t motivated by greed but by market pressures.” In other words, the levels of greed of individual capitalists may vary widely, but all are subject to the same market pressures of a capitalist system that requires companies to maximise profits in order to survive. For this reason, we can’t tackle the “corporate greed” of Big Pharma or eliminate industries built on sowing insecurities without tackling the entire capitalist system that produces them. 

Capitalism perverts what would otherwise be life-changing improvements in medicine for millions of people. The use of Ozempic and other forms of semaglutide for weight loss has contributed to a supply shortage, making it more challenging for diabetics to fill their prescriptions. To pharmaceutical companies like Novo Nordisk, however, the difference is null as long as the money is green. To truly challenge unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards, we will have to go beyond feel-good ad campaigns promoting body positivity, and instead take on the capitalist system that produces these unfair beauty standards in the first place.

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