In London last month, I witnessed a drug deal of epic proportions.
I’d had a minor mishap that took me to the door of a private doctor. After the consultation, I was sent downstairs to the clinic’s pharmacy, prescription in hand. But I had to wait, because the pharmacist was busy serving another customer.
“That will be £7,300,” he was telling her.
“I have some of it in cash,” she said, and handed him a paper brick. He stood there counting out £6,000 in £500 notes, like some street corner cocaine dealer, and then she gave him her credit card. Finally, he handed her a bag. “Here’s your Ozempic,” he said.
I was surprised, because the severe shortage of Ozempic in the UK had been in the news. Britain’s diabetic patients, who badly need it, can’t get it. But, apparently, people who are willing to pay the full cost of the drug can get as much of it as they like.
This has huge implications for the wine trade, because the people who are prepared to buy Ozempic with cash are oftentimes part of the same demographic as people who buy fine wine.
And one of Ozempic’s side effects is that it kills the desire to drink alcohol.
The rise of a blockbuster
Semaglutide drugs were developed about 15 years ago by the Danish company Novo Nordisk, and released in 2017. Although the first drug, Ozempic, was targeted at diabetic patients, word soon got out that people who took the drug were losing their appetites. They were also losing weight. Lots and lots of weight.
Since then, Ozempic, its sister drug Wegovy, and other related medications have been flying off pharmacy shelves, despite the sticker price of $900+ a month. Even media reports of “Ozempic face” ― the sagging that happens when you lose weight too fast ― can’t slow the rush. While diabetic patients grapple with shortages, celebrities, influencers, and business titans are keeping their bathroom cabinets fully stocked.
In late August, the New York Times ran a story about where the biggest users of Ozempic are to be found in New York City. Not in Brooklyn, which has the most diabetics of any NYC neighbourhood. No, the biggest concentration of Ozempic users is to be found in the rarefied air of the wealthy Upper East Side.
This pharmaceutical frenzy has implications far beyond individual waistlines. Pity New York’s restaurateurs, for example, who apparently have to watch patrons pushing food around their plates, pretending to have an appetite so their friends don’t realise they’re taking weight loss drugs.
The winners and losers
Novo Nordisk, the company behind Ozempic and Wegovy, is now Europe’s most valuable company. It’s worth more than Denmark’s entire GDP, and is bringing a tidal wave of money into the country.
The weight loss industry, on the other hand, is panicking. And so, according to reports, are alcohol industry executives.
“People taking these weight loss drugs consumed 62% less alcohol.”
As The Washington Post reported: “Studies conducted by Morgan Stanley’s AlphaWise research unit found that people taking these weight loss drugs consumed 62% less alcohol; more than one in five of them said they had stopped drinking booze altogether.”
This is great news for people who struggle with alcohol. It’s less good news for the wine producers whose ideal customers are moderate drinkers.
Or, as Bloomberg put it: “Early readings from Wall Street analysts suggest that [these drugs] could have a dramatic impact on the alcohol industry. Weight loss drugs may not carry the same threat to the alcohol industry as, say, Prohibition, but companies and investors would be wise to start strategizing about how they will adapt as more people begin to take the drugs.”
The wine trade is already reeling from catastrophic weather events, falling consumption and inflationary pressures. And now this.
Facing the abstemious future
There is a small amount of breathing space before the full effect of these drugs will be felt. Right now they’re expensive and in such short supply that even the well-heeled struggle to get their prescriptions filled. These shortages are likely to continue well into 2024.
Also, many people find they can’t tolerate the drugs’ side effects: only a third of patients are still taking the drug after one year. That’s a pretty high drop-off rate.
But these drugs are so lucrative that there is a global race to develop more of them. It is likely that better drugs with fewer side effects are going to hit the market in the next few years, while the price will come down.
Alcohol is a social beverage. Is it possible that more people will feel embarrassed by their own consumption if others say “no”?
Even if only a few people are taking them, it means there will be more people sitting at the table declining that glass of wine. Alcohol is a social beverage. Is it possible that more people will feel embarrassed by their own consumption if others say “no”? And what if it's the most influential people in society who are saying “no”?
The wine trade should be a flagbearer for moderate consumption, and certainly shouldn’t entice anybody to drink who doesn’t want to. But it would be a pity if the historic ritual of having a glass of wine with dinner, or a bottle of Champagne to celebrate an anniversary, vanished. What would be even worse is if we lose the art of the table and the hospitality that accompanies it.
It seems unthinkable that people might one day lose interest in good food and wine, yet there might be a substantial number of people who prefer a slender waist to the joy of dining out.
Restaurants in posh areas will need to adapt by offering more sharing plates, smaller portions, and more decorative-looking food. It’s something that wine producers might want to consider: smaller serving formats, less alcohol and more emphasis on beautiful packaging, so that the bottle itself becomes a desirable addition to the dining table.
But what wine producers can’t do is hope that Ozempic is a blip that will go away.
If this all sounds ludicrously dystopian, consider this: pharmacies in the UK have big signs advertising that you can now buy Viagra without a prescription. One day, there may be signs saying customers can have as many boxes of these new drugs as they can carry.
That would mean a lot of people losing any desire for wine.