Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines is illegal in Australia, but this hasn’t stopped weight loss drug companies, who have an inglorious history of using deceptive methods to market their products. In 2002 a swathe of news stories appeared on television, print and radio. These reported the efforts of the ‘Healthy Weight Task Force’, an independent group of doctors and health professionals, who’d researched weight loss methods and declared Roche’s drug Xenical to be the ‘best’.

Multiple health professionals – doctors, dietitians and pharmacists – were interviewed and each waxed lyrical about Xenical. But a Media Watch investigation revealed that the entire media frenzy had been engineered by Roche’s PR firm Burson-Marsteller, who had written the press release and fed it to a completely uncritical media.

Media Watch also disclosed that the ‘Healthy Weight Task Force’ itself was a Roche creation. And the Taskforce’s allegedly ‘independent’ health professionals earnestly spruiking Xenical all over the media were being paid by Roche.

At the time, Roche were pushing to get Xenical approved for over-the-counter use in Australia. Roche’s planted ‘news’ from a fake ‘task force’ generated enormous media coverage and hype about their (famously ineffective and shart-causing) weight loss drug, and it worked – Xenical was approved to be sold without a prescription in 2004. As Media Watch observed, ‘one of the really clever tricks of the industry is duping the media into running advertising campaigns absolutely free of charge.’

Fast forward more than 20 years, and we’re in the midst of a ‘dupe epidemic’. The current media frenzy surrounding Novo Nordisk’s weight loss drug Semaglutide (marketed as Ozempic for use in diabetes and as Wegovy at a double dose for weight loss) is being deviously orchestrated by the Nordic multinational.

In the USA, where direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines is legal, Novo have been caught creating fake news. In January 2023, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine lodged an FDA complaint following a CBS 60 Minutes segment on Wegovy. Although portrayed as news, the entire piece was a giant advertorial: a strategic effort to drum up sufficient hysteria about higher body weight to achieve Novo’s ultimate goal: getting their expensive drugs subsidised by the government.

During the segment Novo’s key marketing messages were hammered home: ‘obesity is a disease needing lifelong medical treatment’, Ozempic is effective and safe, and not having the drugs subsidised by the government constitutes ‘weight based discrimination.’ Every ‘expert’ and customer interviewed gave glowing testimonials, and the downsides were glossed over or ignored.

Novo Nordisk had paid CBS to air the piece, and each of the ‘experts’ who appeared on the show had also been paid by Novo Nordisk. No disclosures of the experts multiple conflicts of interests were aired, and no experts with dissenting views about higher body weight appeared.

I asked the Physicians Committee what happened after they lodged the complaint, and they told me the FDA had ‘confirmed receipt, after which an official told us that the agency takes such complaints ‘very seriously.’ But the agency typically does not disclose the results of its investigations, and it has not yet issued a warning notice to any of the involved parties.’ Given that the complaint was lodged more than a year ago without any obvious consequences, one wonders just how ‘seriously’ this issue is being taken.

In Australia, the TGA have prohibited Ozempic from being advertised at all, with threats of jail time and fines of up to $1.1 million for individuals and $11.1 million for companies who breach this prohibition. It’s also prohibited to advertise Ozempic for off-label use, such as weight loss.

But on 14 April 2024, during prime time, Channel 7’s Spotlight program aired a ‘special event’ called “The Ozempic Revolution,” which pretended to be news but was really a 67 minute advertisement promoting Novo’s prescription drug Ozempic for weight loss. The set was plastered with pictures of Ozempic pens, and they even aired snippets from American Ozempic ads with their catchy jingle. A former host of The Biggest Loser was depicted injecting Ozempic while upbeat music played in the background, beaming as she held up the Ozempic pack to the camera.

The Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) define ‘advertise’ as:

“make any statement, pictorial representation or design that is intended, whether directly or indirectly, to promote the use or supply of the goods”.

The TGA also define material to be ‘promotional’ (and therefore advertising), if it contains unbalanced information (focusing on the positive qualities of a therapeutic good and omitting or downplaying the negative qualities), uses superlatives, (describing a therapeutic good as ‘the best’ or ‘works fastest’), using descriptive adjectives or statements that are emotive (for example, describing a therapeutic good as ‘brilliant’ or ‘changed my life’), and any information that is disseminated by, or on behalf of, manufacturers, sponsors, retailers and any other party with a financial interest in the sale of the goods.

The Spotlight special was stuffed to the brim with all of these, and more:

Information that is disseminated by, or on behalf of, manufacturers, sponsors, retailers and any other party with a financial interest – A panel of 3 “obesity experts” dominated the special, all of whom have financial ties to Novo Nordisk. Dr John Dixon has received $AU81 000 from Novo Nordisk since 2020, he sits on their advisory board, and has recently directly lobbied to add Ozempic to the PBS. Dr Terri-Lynne South, recently appointed chair of the RACGP obesity special interest group, has received ‘speaker fees’ from Novo Nordisk ($AU2500). Dr Nick Kormas is the Treasurer of the National Association for Clinical Obesity Services (NACOS), which was founded using Novo Nordisk money and continues to be funded by them. No disclosures of any of the obesity experts’ ties to Novo Nordisk were made.

Planted in the front row of the studio audience was a woman who spoke passionately about wanting access to Ozempic so she could lose weight before having weight loss surgery (????‍♀️). This woman is a member of the Weight Issues Network (WIN), an astroturf ‘patient advocacy’ group set up by the Obesity Collective, who have received money from Novo Nordisk. WIN members have been coached by Dr Arya Sharma, a Canadian Novo Nordisk funded endocrinologist who specialises in training patient groups to speak to the media about obesity being a disease.

Unbalanced Information – If the Spotlight material was any more one sided the entire studio would have toppled over. Even the audience was stacked: host Michael Usher announced that it comprised of people taking Ozempic and ‘people who want to take it’.

The obesity experts fell over themselves gushing about Ozempic for weight loss. There were zero ‘experts’ without financial ties to Novo Nordisk. A medicalized view of higher body weight was the only perspective presented. Alternative approaches, like weight inclusive health care, were conspicuously absent.

Echoing the USA 60 minutes segment, Spotlight regurgitated Novo Nordisk’s key marketing messages: that ‘obesity is a disease which requires lifelong medical treatment’, that Ozempic is extremely effective with minimal risks compared to the benefits, and that it constitutes ‘weight stigma’ and discrimination to deny access to weight loss drugs to those without diabetes.

All three obesity experts and the Spotlight journalists incorrectly referred to obesity as a disease. In Australia obesity is not classified as a disease. Such statements mislead the Australian public and inappropriately medicalize body size. Approximately 40% of people with BMI>30 are metabolically healthy, confounding factors such as weight stigma, socio-economic status, weight cycling from chronic dieting, age, and a host of other variables are rarely controlled for in weight loss industry-funded obesity research, and of course metabolic health issues can and do happen to smaller bodied people.

Significant air time was devoted to discussing the ‘need’ to add Ozempic to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and to stop ‘discriminating’ against people without diabetes who wish to use Ozempic for weight loss, for which the obesity experts were stridently voicing their support.

Although highly critical of the PBS, the obesity experts remained completely uncritical of Novo Nordisk. Ozempic is an expensive drug: in Australia the off-label price is $AU160 a month. In the USA, Wegovy is extortionate, costing $US1350 per month. This is pure price gouging on Novo’s part: the drug can be profitably produced for less than $US5 a month. We need to remember that Novo built their fortune from price gouging insulin: this company has a solid track record of putting profit before people.

But Spotlight’s ‘obesity experts’ did not call for Novo Nordisk to reduce their prices, they only emphasised putting the drugs on the PBS, even though the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) had considered this at their last meeting and calculated that such a measure would be absolutely crippling to their budget.

A list of Ozempic side effects – nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, muscle loss, fatigue, diabetic retinopathy, gastrointestinal issues, gallbladder disease, kidney problems, loss of bone density, pancreatitis, increased risk of thyroid cancer, allergic reaction, and hypoglycaemia – were mentioned very briefly and and downplayed. There was no mention of important, very serious problems such as deathileusgastroparesissuicidalitydelayed gastric emptying leading to increased risk of aspirating in surgeries. Warnings about use in pregnancy or those wishing to become pregnant were not mentioned, even though the consumer information leaflet advises that Ozempic should not be used during pregnancy, if breastfeeding, and for at least two months before pregnancy ‘because Ozempic may harm your unborn child’. Weight regain and loss of muscle mass was not discussed, although this is well established when people cease use.

Superlative Language – Ozempic was repeatedly referred to in glowing terms, as a ’weight loss miracle’, ‘the weight loss wonder is the miracle they’ve been waiting for’…’the Ozempic wonderdrug’. Fearmongering and statements which could cause alarm or distress were frequently made by the experts. This was demonstrated in an exchange between Michael Usher and a guest:

Michael – ‘you found Ozempic…how big a game changer was it”

Guest – “Oh it’s changed my life”

Michael – “Was it [obesity] going to kill you?’

Guest – “Absolutely, 100%.”

Dr Kormas spoke about the death of a teenager, implying that he died of being at a higher weight. These are egregious examples of reckless fearmongering.

I’ve tried to get in touch with Channel 7 and the Spotlight team but have had no response. Of course, the entire show is now deep in damage control after Federal Court documents in the notorious Bruce Lehrmann defamation case revealed that in return for an interview, Spotlight agreed to pay Lehrmann’s ‘expenses’, including $>AU100 000 worth of accommodation, and reimbursed him for money spent on cocaine and sex workers, invoiced as “pre-production expenses”.

Such creative accounting practices have lead to several heads rolling at Spotlight, and the integrity of the show and its very future is on shaky ground. But there are questions about their ‘Ozempic Revolution’ which must be answered. Did Novo Nordisk pay the show to produce the special, like it did with 60 Minutes in the United States? Did Novo Nordisk provide financial or other perks to any of the guests featured on the show? Were the show’s producers aware of the conflicts of interest between their chosen experts and Novo Nordisk, and if so, why were these not disclosed?

The timing of the Spotlight show is of course strategic, as Novo Nordisk are currently trying to have Ozempic placed on the PBS and have to date (twice) been unsuccessful in their efforts. A further meeting with the PBS is apparently scheduled to occur mid 2024, and the kind of publicity generated from the Spotlight special would certainly be beneficial to Novo Nordisk. Influencing the public narrative to this degree is outrageous, but as we saw with Roche over two decades ago, not without precedent.

I’ve compiled a complaint about the show which I have sent off to the TGA, which was co-signed by a number of other concerned health professionals – doctors, a dietitian, an exercise physiologist – none of whom have conflicts of interest with Novo Nordisk. We’re asking for an investigation of the Spotlight special on Ozempic, and for the questions regarding potential further involvement/incentives from Novo Nordisk to be answered and publicised. We’ve also requested that the program be withdrawn from circulation and replaced with corrective advertising, revealing all of the undisclosed conflicts, errors, and omissions, of comparable wide dissemination.

The nefarious antics of the weight loss industry have always been unconscionable. But the world has never seen weight loss marketing on this scale before. Novo Nordisk have incredibly deep pockets and they’ve literally invaded every corner of the obesity-industrial complex, tightly controlling the narrative in order to drive even more stratospheric profits.

In the face of this Nordic invasion, our laws against advertising weight loss drugs are being flouted, and hopelessly conflicted ‘obesity experts’ are so emboldened by the backing of Big Pharma that they’re perfectly comfortable appearing on national television to promote illegal use of a prescription drug.

I’ll keep you posted about the TGA complaint – jail time? Hefty fines? Or….tumbleweeds?