Cheri Ferguson traded her vape pen for an Ozempic pen.
One day seven weeks ago, I thought, are you doing something about your weight; leave your vape at home, Ferguson said.
He hasn’t taken it back since, he says.
Courtesy of Cheri Ferguson
Cheri Ferguson says she noticed changes in her behavior after starting Ozempic.
Ferguson is one of many people taking Ozempic and similar weight-loss drugs who say they’ve also noticed an effect on their interest in addictive behaviors like smoking and drinking.
A smoker for most of her life, Ferguson started Ozempic 11 weeks ago to try to shed the roughly 50 pounds gained during the Covid-19 pandemic, which had left her prediabetic.
She had switched from cigarettes to vaping last summer in hopes of quitting, but found that vapors were even more addictive. That changed, she said, once she started Ozempic.
It’s like someone comes in and turns on the light, and you can see the room for what it is, said Ferguson. And all these vapes and cigarettes that you’ve had over the years, they don’t seem appealing anymore. It’s very, very strange. Very strange.
Ferguson said he drinks less alcohol on Ozempic as well. While he would have multiple drinks in a pub while watching football in Buckinghamshire, UK, he now settles for just one.
Some doctors say that when it comes to addictive behaviors, an effect on alcohol use is the most common thing they hear from people taking Ozempic or similar medicines.
I’ve had a number of patients describe this and ask because they’re curious about, hey, I’ve noticed this change; could it be due to this drug? said Jena Shaw Tronieri, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of clinical services at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
Tronieri is conducting a clinical trial of semaglutide (the generic name for Ozempic which is approved for diabetes and Wegovy approved for weight loss) to better understand its long-term effects on appetite. In many lifestyle modification trials that she has conducted, she has never had participants report this type of feeling about alcohol.
But with semaglutide, people sort of describe, you know what, I just don’t care anymore. I don’t feel like drinking, she said.
And when they ask if it could be the drugs, she tells them there’s no evidence to say for sure, but there’s some reason to believe that could be one of the effects.
Dr. Lorenzo Leggio is studying this issue at the National Institutes of Health. He and a team of researchers just released a study demonstrating that semaglutide reduces alcohol consumption in rodents.
Drugs like semaglutide, in a class known as GLP-1 analogs, can influence interest in things like alcohol because they affect not only the gut but the brain as well, Leggio said.
We believe that at least one of the mechanisms by which these drugs reduce alcohol consumption is by reducing the rewarding effects of alcohol, such as those linked to a neurotransmitter in our brain, which is dopamine, he said. So these drugs are likely to make alcohol less rewarding.
Their impact could go beyond alcohol and smoking; Leggio said his team is also studying whether semaglutide has an effect on fentanyl use disorder. And the Atlantic recently reported that people taking Ozempic said it helped them stop addictive behaviors like nail biting and online shopping.
There’s a lot of overlap in the neurobiological mechanisms that regulate addictive behaviors in general, Leggio said. So it’s possible that drugs like semaglutide, by targeting this specific mechanism in the brain, could help people with a variety of addictive behaviors.
More research, especially human clinical trials, is needed to show that semaglutide and similar medicines have this effect, he said.
But there aren’t many going on. One set, examining the effect of semaglutides on alcohol and cigarette use, has been sold out of the University of North Carolina.
We don’t yet have the clinical data needed to draw any conclusions, Christian Hendershot, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, which is leading the trials, wrote in an email to CNN. It seems very clear from the people who come to our studies (particularly different treatment providers) that many patients are experiencing some significant secondary benefits from being on these treatments.
To see this scale of anecdotal clinical data emerge before any human work is published, he added, is a relatively unprecedented situation.
Novo Nordisk, which makes Ozempic and Wegovy, and Eli Lilly, which makes a similar drug called Mounjaro, said they are not currently studying these addiction drugs.
Their hands are full with obesity and related metabolic diseases, said Evan Seigerman, a pharmaceutical industry analyst who tracks companies for financial firm BMO Capital Markets.
And addiction drugs, especially for alcohol use disorder, haven’t been a particularly lucrative market for drug companies, despite a great need. More than 29 million Americans had an alcohol use disorder in 2021, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, but fewer than 5 percent receive drug therapy, according to research by financial firm TD Cowen.
Available drugs like Vivitrol did not see major use when they hit the market because doctors may not be familiar with treating alcohol dependence with drugs, Cowen said. Another drug, Antabuse, is a pill that makes people feel terrible if they drink alcohol while on it. Compliance is an issue, Cowens’ research shows, because people can just stop taking it if they want to drink.
Antabuse sales in the United States, Cowens analysts wrote, are negligible.
Leggio said he was disappointed but not surprised to hear that pharmaceutical companies were not studying GLP-1 drugs for addiction, adding that there is a lack of industry-sponsored trials for addiction treatments. they are a major problem for the industry.
But the evidence is what it will take to prove that the experiences reported by Ferguson and many others are true effects of the drugs.
Ferguson said he has lost 38 pounds since starting Ozempic. But more important to her, he said, is how the drug has helped calm constant thoughts about food, vaping or alcohol.
If I’d known I’d feel this way, I probably would have a year ago when I started struggling with weight gain, Ferguson said. The weight it takes off your mind is far greater than any pounds it can shed off your body.