Tempest in a Very Large Teapot

The huge story of the past year has been the explosion in the use of a whole new genre of weight-loss drugs. Like any such gigantic, all-encompassing development, this one has brought innumerable minor stories in its wake. One such side-piece is the voluntary demotion of superstar Oprah Winfrey from her almost decade-long seat as a Weight Watchers board member. Rather than replace her, the board will reduce its membership to nine seats.

The talk-show star was elected to office in 2015 but will not be running again this May. She has owned a massive amount of WeightWatchers stock, the value of which has fluctuated over the years. Variety says, “Her initial investment for 6.4 million shares of the company totaled $43.2 million.” A few years later, all the new weight-loss drugs showed up on the market, and many investors took their dollars elsewhere. And then, last week, the announcement of her departure from the board caused the stock price to decrease by more than 20%.

According to Variety,

Winfrey owns about 1.1 million shares of WW International, representing a 1.43% stake in the company, according to data provider FactSet. At the current stock price, that’s worth less than $3.5 million.

These remaining shares and all future income from them are being donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is said that Winfrey will continue to work hand-in-hand with WeightWatchers in “elevating the conversation around recognizing obesity as a chronic condition, working to reduce stigma, and advocating for health equity.” The announcement was made in December via People magazine, “after coming to the realization that weight management does not hinge solely on a person’s self-control.”


In every report of this story, statements are made that do not clarify but confuse the issue. On one hand, it seems as if Winfrey’s personal decision, some months ago, to start taking a weight-loss drug is looked upon as treachery. It is said that in seeking and accepting a leadership position, she had undertaken to “not engage in any other weight loss or weight management business, program, products or services.”

So, were people angry because she started injecting herself with one of the new drugs? That would be understandable. But there is more information to assimilate:

Last year, Weight Watchers acquired Sequence, a subscription telehealth platform that offers, among other benefits, access to healthcare providers who can prescribe weight-loss drugs including Ozempic, for $106 million. (Users pay $99 a month, not including prescription costs.)

For NPR, Vanessa Romo wrote,

The move to embrace the drugs as part of its weight management program is a massive shift for the company’s behavior-based program. For 60 years, WeightWatchers coaches have told members that the path to a thinner, healthier version of themselves consisted of exercise, counting calories, points — and, perhaps most of all, willpower.

How can this seeming contradiction be reconciled? Romo says, “That reversal has left many current and former members struggling with their own weight feeling betrayed.” It would seem that, if such were the case, having a prominent authority like Winfrey tell them that drugs are okay would eliminate the conflict.

WeightWatchers announced that Winfrey’s decision not to run for the position “was not the result of any disagreement with the company on any matter relating to the company’s operations, policies or practices.” That seems clear enough, because the company is now in the business of hooking up customers with doctors who will prescribe, and sources that will supply the GLP-1 medications.

Yet somehow, there was perceived to be a conflict of interest if a WeightWatchers board member, and owner of a large amount of stock, happened to personally use a weight-loss drug. According to The New York Times,

Kelsey Merkel, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers, said that Ms. Winfrey wanted to “advocate authentically” for the weight-loss measures she believed to be most effective, without anyone questioning her profit motive.

Meanwhile, it appears that what faithful members regret most is not the former drugless approach, but the fellowship and sense of community provided by live gatherings in real time. The entire huge Weight Watchers International organization started as a meeting of seven people in a housewife’s basement.

Says The New York Times, “Before the pandemic there were 3,300 in-person workshops throughout the United States.” The COVID crisis spurred “premium members” to pay close to $50 per month for “unlimited access to virtual meetings and other digital tools.”

Really feeling slighted are the so-called lifetime members, “who are rewarded with free access to premium-tier benefits if they stay within two pounds of their goal weight — but who must weigh in at an official workshop at least once a month.” Now, there are fewer than 1,000 local workshops, and even some of those are online.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Oprah Winfrey to Exit WeightWatchers Board After She Announced Use of Weight-Loss Drug,” Variety.com, 02/29/24
Source: “Oprah to Leave Weight Watchers Board,” NYTimes.com, 02/29/24
Source: “After nearly a decade, Oprah Winfrey is set to depart the board of WeightWatchers,” NPR.org, 03/01/24
Source: “When WeightWatchers Ended In-Person Meetings, They Held Their Own,” NYTimes.com, 02/02/24
Image by Mike Mozart/CC BY 2.0 DEED

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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