Bashful Men Can Buy the Little Blue Pill Online

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Viagra is appealing to counterfeiters because it carries a double whammy: It’s expensive and it treats a condition with an “embarrassment” factor.

Crooks running the illegal online pharmacies brazenly explain their ultra-low Viagra prices — often $1 to $3 a pill — by claiming they sell generic Viagra.

Generics are copycat versions of brand-name prescription drugs. They can’t be sold legally until after a drugmaker’s patent, or exclusive right to sell a drug, ends. Generic drugmakers don’t have to spend $1 billion or so on testing to get a new drug approved, so their copycat versions often cost up to 90 percent less than the original drug.

But there is no such thing as generic Viagra in the U.S. Pfizer has patents giving it the exclusive right to sell Viagra here until 2020 and for many years in other countries.

Many patients are unaware of that.

Dr. David Dershewitz, an assistant urology professor at New Jersey Medical School who treats patients at Newark’s University Hospital, says erectile dysfunction is common in men with enlarged prostates, diabetes and other conditions, but most men are too embarrassed to discuss it.

He says well over half of his patients who do broach the issue complain about Viagra’s price. Some tell Dershewitz that they go online looking for bargains because they can’t afford Viagra.

“The few that do admit to it have said that the results have been fairly dismal,” but none has suffered serious harm, he says.

For Pfizer, that’s a big problem. People who buy fake drugs online that don’t work, or worse, harm them, may blame the company’s product. That’s because it’s virtually impossible to distinguish fakes from real Viagra.

“The vast majority of patients do believe that they’re getting Viagra,” says Vic Cavelli, head of marketing for primary care medicines at Pfizer.

The sales lost to counterfeits threaten Pfizer at a time when Viagra already is losing is dominance in the market.

Pfizer invented the term “erectile dysfunction” to replace the less-palatable medical term “impotence” after it came up with the first drug for the condition. It was a lucky find. Pfizer was testing an experimental blood pressure drug when older men in the study started telling research staff about an unexpected but welcomed side effect: better erections.

Pfizer quickly developed Viagra and made the discussion about erectile dysfunction mainstream with ads featuring ex-Sen. Bob Dole and other public figures.

But Viagra’s share of the $5 billion-a-year global market for legitimate erectile dysfunction drugs has slipped, falling from 46 percent in 2007 to 37 percent last year, according to health data firm IMS Health.

The reason? Competition from rival products, mainly Eli Lilly and Co.’s Cialis — the pill touted in those ubiquitous commercials featuring couples in his-and-hers bathtubs in bizarre places.

Judson Clark, an Edward Jones analyst, forecasts that Viagra sales will decline even further, about 5 percent each year for the next five years, unusual “for a drug in its prime.”

Clark says he thinks Pfizer’s strategy will prevent sales from declining, but he’s unsure how well it will work.

“It’s a very interesting and novel approach,” he says. “Whether it returns Viagra to growth is hard to say.”

(Photo: AP)

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