The Obesity Revolution

Elaine Chen and Matthew Herper, STAT, March 5, 2023

A two-part message is permeating the halls of medicine and the fabric of society, sliding into medical school lectures, pediatricians’ offices, happy hours and social feeds: Obesity is a chronic biological disease — and it’s treatable with a new class of medications.

The condition has long been framed as a result of poor lifestyle decisions and a failure of willpower — eating too much and exercising too little. But a new generation of highly effective obesity medications, and the overt and subtle messaging from the pharmaceutical companies making them, are starting to change the narrative.


The drugmakers’ messages

Even as they develop their new offerings, drug companies are jumping on this moment and aggressively marketing the need to treat obesity. Novo Nordisk has launched campaigns titled “it’s bigger than me” and “truth about weight” to get the public to recognize obesity as a biological condition. Lilly is running a study looking at misconceptions about obesity treatment, as it sees “a critical need for broader acceptance of obesity as a chronic, treatable disease.” Novo is also reaching deep into medical education, funding the development of curricula for medical students that span topics from the causes of obesity to available treatments.

The company contracted with a medical education company that made a first draft of the content, then a group of doctors revised the materials and also recorded themselves presenting the slides, said Kushner of Northwestern, one of the doctors. Kushner said he’s also leading a grant that Novo awarded to The Obesity Society to work with 10 medical schools to tailor and integrate the curricula. On a website leading to the slides and recorded lectures, together titled FORWARD, Novo Nordisk said its aim was “to support the development and implementation of obesity education in clinical professional schools, ensuring adequate training of future health care providers on the diagnosis and management of obesity.”

That’s not just pushing the envelope, it’s “shredding the envelope,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research. “Medical students are a captive audience, they are paying to be there to be educated, and they shouldn’t be educated by a company that has a vested interest.”

Kushner said Novo is “trying to increase the understanding that this is a disease that needs treatment.” The curricula cover many topics, and “I don’t see anything biased in the slides myself,” he said.

At the College of New Jersey, near Novo’s U.S. headquarters, employees of the company have given lectures about obesity. The drugmaker has also funded fellowships in obesity medicine. In the U.K., Novo sponsored online obesity courses, but it broke industry code by failing to disclose its involvement, and the company apologized, the Financial Times reported

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