Weight Loss Drug Fracas Continues as Risk of Shortages Grows

3 min read

April 17, 2023 – Americans have flocked to Canada to get the pricey, and very trendy, weight loss drug Ozempic. But Canadians are saying not so fast. 

British Columbia, a province in Canada, is banning Americans from purchasing the drug, which was created to treat type 2 diabetes, “to ensure that diabetes patients in British Columbia do not experience a shortage of the diabetes drug semaglutide (Ozempic) in an environment where surging demand in some jurisdictions is creating shortages.”

The drug can cost up to $1,000 per month in the U.S. Meanwhile, in Canada, Ozempic can cost around $300 a month.

The British Columbia Ministry of Health released a report that said thousands of U.S. residents have been filling their Ozempic prescriptions in its region. Out of the Ozempic dispensed in British Columbia, 15% (15,798 doses) were sold to Americans in January and February of this year.

Don’t be surprised if other Canadian provinces follow suit, said Walter Oronsaye, PharmD, a Houston-based pharmacist who creates online content with information about prescription drugs, including drug shortages

“If Ozempic is not used for diabetes purposes, most of the time it’s not covered by insurance,” he said. “That $1,000 a month is not something that a lot of people can afford. So, I think it's very likely for other parts of Canada to ban it as well.”

In fact, Canada's national health minister said late last week he's working with other provinces to prevent mass export of the drug to U.S. patients, Canadian media reported.  

Mark Decerbo, PharmD, a Las Vegas-based pharmacist, said doctors frequently prescribe “off-label medications.” He also said that British Columbia’s power move could be the best move as well.

“Undoubtedly, the popularity of this drug, both because of its efficacy, as well as its social media footprint, have contributed to shortages, as have the omni-present global supply chain disruptions of the raw materials needed to produce the drug,” he said. “In general, I fully support British Columbia's ban on Ozempic purchases for Americans, as any country's focus should always be on prioritizing the health and well-being of its own citizens over others.”

Going Viral 

One of the most controversial issues in the Ozempic dispute: People who don’t have diabetes have been taking Ozempic solely for weight loss, leaving some people with type 2 diabetes without vital medication. 

Social media platforms, along with celebrity endorsements, have greatly boosted the popularity, and sales, of Ozempic for weight loss – which has added to the shortages.

“There are Facebook groups offering ways for people to get Ozempic at cheaper prices,” Oronsaye said. “I’m sure there’s a group that discovered that people could buy Ozempic in Canada.”

People without diabetes who take Ozempic say the controversy has been overblown. Annie Brown, 33, doesn't have diabetes and takes the drug to shed pounds. After being overweight her whole life, she loves that Ozempic makes your stomach “feel full even if you’re not.” 

Brown called Ozempic “a miracle drug”. She lost 14 pounds within 6 weeks of taking the drug, which is made by Novo Nordisk. She has gotten some online pushback, with some saying that she will gain weight if she stops taking it. “You're stealing from the diabetics" and “You should feel ashamed of yourself” are other comments she has received.

Carol Sortore, who is pre-diabetic but does not have type 2 diabetes, takes Ozempic to lose weight after her doctor prescribed the medication, which her insurance also covers. She says she understands the frustration of people who have diabetes if they can't get Ozempic due to shortages, but also said they have “a plethora of insulin options available to them,” which is not always the case for obese people.

“If an individual and their physician have determined that this is a course of action for someone without diabetes to take, then I don’t think they should feel guilty,” Sortore said.