Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005
All Rx's Live in Texas: Most Sundays, the lead story in the New York Times is the latest report from the front lines of drug war, with the incomparable Robert Pear tracking down still more senior citizens baffled by the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. But this past Sunday was different: a front-page account of why sales of impotence drugs like Viagra are declining.
It's nearly impossible to write a story about the rise and fall of Viagra without an embarrassing double-entendre, and the Times's Alex Berenson never had a chance. Every pharmaceutical representative he interviewed sounds straight out of Alec Baldwin's "Schwetty Balls" sketch on Saturday Night Live.
"We are firmly of the mindset that there is huge opportunity in this category," a Pfizer executive says about Viagra. "We will stand very positively on the growth of this marketplace," agrees the head of marketing for Cialis. A Wall Street analyst tells Berenson, "Viagra's sales boomed, then fell back, and then began to rise again."
According to Berenson, despite $400 million a year in advertising, the worldwide market for impotence drugs has leveled off at $2.5 billion, about half what analysts had predicted. Doctors are writing 10 percent fewer prescriptions this year than last.
This can hardly be what Republicans hoped for when they passed the huge prescription drug bill. As SNL's other master of the double-entendre, Christopher Walken's "The Continental," always discovers, there's no point in costly pandering when the subject finds you repulsive.
As the Times reports, Medicare will cover Viagra through the end of next year. Since coverage stops after that, economists might have predicted a run on impotence drugs, rather than a drop-off. Of course, seniors may just be so busy trying to figure out the new Medicare plan that there's no time to think about anything else.
Striking Out: Drug makers might want to consider a new spokesman. The Times says Viagra has lost its stigma "because of advertising featuring athletes like the baseball player Rafael Palmeiro." On the other hand, perhaps not everyone is looking for a drug that will make them lie to Congress and test positive for steroids.
But the larger point of Berenson's story is his fascinating conclusion: Sales are flat not because men have lost faith in impotence drugs, but because they've decided impotence isn't the end of the world. Urologists tell the Times that many older men face two problems the drug can't cure: No one particularly wants to have sex with them, and they feel like they've outgrown it anyway. Many appear to have found the same consolation as Jake in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: more time to fish.
If Washington has anything to say about it, that could be the metaphor for the Bush era: an aging society coming to terms with its own impotence. Yesterday, for example, House Republicans called off their brief fling with fiscal discipline. They added nearly $100 billion over five years to the deficit by passing three new tax cuts, with a fourth on tap for today.