WW guzzles wonder weight-loss pills

WW, formerly known as WeightWatchers, is using the new diet drugs in its programmes.

Weight loss or diet pills on bathroom scales
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Shares in diet group WW (formerly WeightWatchers) climbed by 7% recently after US television personality Oprah Winfrey, a board member and one its largest investors, said she was taking weight-loss medication as a “maintenance tool”, says Erich Schwartzel in The Wall Street Journal

Her statement introduces “star wattage” to the debate about weight-loss drugs that have “rocked the pharmaceutical, food and diet industries since their widespread adoption”. Her comments come as the company has begun its long-awaited shift to incorporate such prescriptions alongside its... “iconic count-your-points eating plan”, in the hope it will help WeightWatchers stock “reverse a steep, years-long decline”. 

WW’s change of plan is a “significant shift” for a company that has long focused on “behaviour-based strategies” such as alterations in diet and exercise, counting calories and “relying on a community of support”, says Alice Park for Time magazine. The shift began in 2018 when it ditched the WeightWatchers name to emphasise “wellness”. 

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In 2023 it bought digital health company Sequence, and will now, for an extra $99 a month, offer members digital consultations allowing them to get prescriptions for weight-loss drugs such as semaglutide (Ozempic and Wegovy) and Eli Lilly's tirzepatide (Zepbound). They have proven to be “more effective than any previous weight-loss drugs”. The decision to build a business “around pushing pharmaceuticals” is a clever way to embrace the threat of drugs that might otherwise make WW seem “obsolete”, says Lauren Silva Laughlin on Breakingviews

Early results seem to suggest it is working, with the number of clinical subscribers at WW jumping far more quickly than expected while latching on to the hype surrounding Wegovy has given the stock a fillip of 60%.

While giving their customers an easier path to a drug in short supply gives WW an “edge”, the key will be “whether WW can break out of the familiar cycle of customers ambitiously signing up for weight-loss programmes, only to fail and drop their subscriptions”. The Wegovy boom has also been good news for its manufacturer Novo Nordisk, say Jonas Ekblom and Lisa Pham on Bloomberg. The stock has risen by 42% this year as investors “latched on to the growth potential of a market that some analysts predict could reach $100bn by 2030”. However, while this surge has “pushed the Danish firm’s value past the size of its domestic economy”, repeating the trick “won’t be so easy” thanks to “rising competition, issues with producing enough of its blockbuster drugs, and a valuation that’s getting stretched”. In addition to Eli Lilly’s Zepbound, cheaper than Wegovy, drugs from Zealand Pharma as well as Amgen are on the horizon.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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