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Rise of weight-loss medications such as Ozempic leading to drops in share prices

Sylvain CharleboisThe surging demand for weight-control drugs, prominently Ozempic, is not only aiding countless individuals in shedding excess pounds but is also noticeably tempering growth projections for the packaged food sector.

What’s even more striking is the speed at which this transformation is occurring. Indeed, the food industry is now exploring how these medications might potentially reshape the future of food consumption in Canada, with potential consequences for the way Canadians eat in the coming years.

Let’s begin by discussing the medication itself. Referred to as GLP-1 drugs, these pharmaceuticals mimic a hormone that signals fullness to the brain, encouraging individuals, including those already taking diabetes medications, to eat less and make more health-conscious dietary choices.

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Developed initially to manage Type 2 diabetes, many now regard them as a miraculous solution for weight loss, actively seeking insights from their healthcare providers. The demand for these drugs, fueled in part by the millions of TikTok viewers, has resulted in shortages.

Except for Ozempic, Health Canada has approved very few similar drugs, like Rybelsus, which can be taken orally. Unless individuals have insurance coverage, these treatments can cost from $600 to well over a thousand dollars per month.

According to data from Statistics Canada, in 2021, approximately 29 percent of Canadian adults aged 18 and above were categorized as obese, with an additional 36 percent falling into the overweight category. While the prevalence of overweight adults remained relatively stable between 2015 and 2020, there was a notable increase of approximately three percentage points in obese adults during the same period.

This translates to roughly one-third of the Canadian population grappling with weight-related issues. Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that interest in these treatments is rising.

The food industry is starting to take notice of this shifting landscape. Just last week, a Walmart executive disclosed to Bloomberg that the retail giant observed that individuals using GLP-1-type drugs like Ozempic tend to purchase slightly fewer groceries than other customers. As a result, Mondelez International, renowned for its popular snacks such as Oreos and Ritz crackers, experienced a 7.7 percent drop in its shares over the following two days.

Last week, PepsiCo also weighed in on this matter while reporting its financial results. PepsiCo demonstrated robust financial performance in the most recent quarter and has cast doubts on the prevailing notion of a potential market downturn driven by Ozempic. However, the traditionally resilient PepsiCo stock has suffered a significant decline of almost 13 percent over the past six months, mirroring broader sell-offs within the food industry.

Shares of Mondelez, the maker of Chips Ahoy! Oreo cookies and Cadbury are down almost 12 percent in the last six months. Nestle shares, the largest agribusiness in the world, are also down eight percent just in the last six months. These declines have ignited discussions on Wall Street regarding the implications of the growing prevalence of new weight-loss medications.

This situation inevitably raises ethical and moral concerns: is the profitability of the food and snack industry fundamentally intertwined with a consumer base grappling with excess weight? Undoubtedly, with share prices being impacted by these developments, these companies risk being seen as purveyors of unhealthy foods if consumers start losing weight.

Should the “Ozempic phenomenon” become a reality, it could pose a significant challenge for consumer product and goods companies. Their task would be to transition from being viewed solely as providers of convenient food to being recognized as solution providers for individuals on a weight-loss journey in a potentially leaner marketplace.

In the initial stages of introducing weight-loss drugs, factors such as adoption protocols, regulatory hurdles, and associated costs will likely constrain their widespread use. Time will be the ultimate judge. However, it is clear that these drugs are creating apprehension among many in the food industry and among shareholders.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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