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The new Viagra explosion

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Fifteen years after it changed the world, the magic blue pill has been reborn as a party drug for young men. And it’s about to get even more widespread. ShortList’s Eddy Lawrence investigates a growing trend

Micro-diffusion brands are all the rage, from guest flavours of crisps to limited-edition deodorants, and one of the more interesting spin-offs of recent times is Viagra Jet. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s only available in Mexico, where pharmaceutical giant Pfizer embarked on a market research project to tailor its product more elegantly to its target male.

Its study revealed Mexican men frequently crunched Viagra with their teeth, believing it would get the drug into the bloodstream faster (it doesn’t, in case you’re thinking of trying it). In response, Pfizer launched a chewable form of Viagra with a snazzy name.

This is the company’s latest attempt to boost the efficacy of one of its most successful ever medications with placebo power.

In the US, meanwhile, Pfizer has positioned itself as the Radiohead of flop medication, selling Viagra direct to consumers in a bid to lower prices and, crucially, cut out the pirate market. Rival pill Levitra responded by releasing a fizzy dissolving pill, which can be taken without water, and also some modified slick ‘nightclub friendly’ packaging in a shiny, masculine black.

These new marketing niches for Viagra are, fittingly, a response to a form of performance anxiety. Last year Pfizer’s patent for the drug ran out in Mexico, thus opening the market to competition from cheaper generic versions of its active compound, sildenafil citrate. Last week, the UK patent also elapsed, meaning potentially huge changes for the legal and black markets in this country. Libido-enhancers you can chomp like Tic Tacs may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Record highs

The male erection was once a wilful work of mystery, sometimes with an apparently inappropriate life of its own. Viagra changed all that. With the advent of Pfizer’s miracle drug, you couldn’t just be assured of an erection, you could schedule it in your PDA. Forty years after the birth control pill gave women power over their reproductive cycle, men got their own poppable sexual revolution. We were finally given domain over our erections. Sexual Emancipation 2: This Time It’s Penile was well underway and now, in 2013, Viagra’s use in the UK is at a record high.

But this is where things get interesting. Originally aimed at, associated with and consumed by the kind of old men that young men feel sorry for, in the past 15 years, Viagra has undergone the kind of public rehabilitation that puts Robert Downey Jr to shame.

Since its accidental discovery in a Kent laboratory as an unintentionally arousing angina medication, the blue diamond has gone from a staple punchline of the hack comedian to an increasingly popular UK party drug. Along the way, it has saved more relationships than Relate, generated more spam email than LinkedIn, and redefined the modern man’s relationship with his junk. Today, Viagra is one of those innovations like the internet which, despite having been around for less than a generation, feels like it’s always existed, and without which society would no doubt fall apart within hours.

Evidence of this lies in the changing demographics of the typical Viagra user. Although recipients of prescriptions for Viagra tend to be older – often with one of a strict list of underlying health conditions – a generation of younger customers buy the drug illegally online for occasional recreational use.

It’s impossible to estimate how many casual users are out there, but it’s telling that in the past three years alone the police have seized £119m in unlicensed drugs and shut down more than 18,000 Viagra-hawking websites.

With this need for a prescription circumvented, it was only a matter of time before Viagra caught on as a recreational drug. After all, it’s an easy way for men to outsource the trickiest part of their sexual performance to a reliable outside agent. Viagra means men with no previous history of erectile dysfunction (ED) can drink as much as they want, take fistfuls of drugs and still be guaranteed tumescence at the end of the night.

And believe it or not, Viagra is about to get bigger. In pharmaceutical terms, the expiry of Pfizer’s patent is a very big deal. Viagra is the fastest-selling drug ever – more than 37 million men across the planet have been prescribed it – and last year it pulled in £1.3bn for Pfizer. And now anyone can make it.

The diamond trade

There are already more than 20 generic versions of Viagra’s active ingredient – sildenafil citrate – set to hit the market, which is likely to bring the price of a single sildenafil tablet down from its current high of £8 to around a mere 85p.

This will have vast repercussions on both the legal and black markets. According to the Health & Social Care Information Centre, The NHS spent more than £80m on Viagra last year, filling 2.4 million prescriptions (which has rocketed up from 1.8 million in 2007). However, this totals 14.7 million pills, which only works out at one erection each every two months. A rather scabby allowance, which NHS commissioners will be reviewing once price wars have reached an armistice.

Ironically, the strict parameters for prescription have helped drive sildenafil as a recreational drug, by boosting its availability on the black market. Even men who qualify for a prescription want to top up their meagre rations, meaning legal users are often used to stocking up over the counter or, more conveniently and anonymously, online.

Although Viagra was never going to be a difficult sell, it has achieved a cultural impact that will always evade rivals such as Cialis – which is more commonly prescribed in the UK thanks to its 36-hour effective duration. Viagra has been a masterpiece of marketing, from its diamond design to its all-pervasive cultural presence. The drug’s advertising budget alone stands at more than $1bn per year.

It’s therefore unlikely that Pfizer is going to let its cash cow go to slaughter gently. Branded Viagra will remain available, but even Pfizer is getting in on the generic act, with the launch this month of Sildenafil Pfizer. Although Pfizer is keeping future marketing plans for its blockbuster (and its blander sequel) quiet, it claims that it is still “committed to men with erectile dysfunction and [continues] to invest in innovation”. Our money’s on Viagra-infused teabags for the UK.

Awkward silences

The instant and sustained success, and – just as importantly – the media profile, of Viagra brought ED onto the cultural stage for the first time. The first recipients of the wonder drug raved about it in private, but remained Trappist in public. Viagra was always something that happened to other people. To put it another way, a pill to treat paruresis (‘shy bladder’, for any non-medical professionals who might be reading) would doubtless be huge. Just not with anyone you know.

Since the dawn of time, male sexual anxiety has been the terror that dare not speak its name. Despite the best efforts of the Erectile Dysfunction League’s pride marches (well, that’s what they look like, at least), a boneless banquet is still considered a mark of shame, or at least a great jump-off point for a lifetime of p*ss-taking, by most men. It’s not surprising.

Our fear of not getting it up is manifested in cultural and clinical forms as varied as Freud’s early theory of ‘kastrationangst’ to the messed-up myth of vagina dentata. ED’s pre-political correctness name – impotence – aptly described the mindset of its sufferers. Powerless. Pointless. It’s surely the most metaphorical medical condition a man can struggle with.

“I don’t mind telling people I take Viagra so much, but I never mention that I get it on prescription,” says Adam (not his real name), a man in his late thirties whose GP supplies him with the drug due to prostate troubles. “Usually, when I say that I buy it online, people’s first reaction is to ask what website I get it from. I dread to think what they’d say if I told them it’s on prescription – it’d probably just be an awkward silence. And it’s true anyway, because I do buy quite a bit online, just because it’s less of a drag than going to Boots.”

Binge thinking

But what about the scores of people without medical problems using the drug for fun? Thanks to their predisposition for experimentation, Viagra first became popular with users of other recreational drugs, who co-opted it into various cocktails. The combination of Viagra and MDMA, for example, is big on both the UK gay and US hip-hop scenes (both Big Boi of OutKast and Def Jam’s Irv ‘Gotti’ Lorenzo have the arrest records to prove it). For most recreational drug consumers though, it’s commonly used alongside cocaine.

Viagra stimulates the release of an endorphin, which widens capillaries, allowing blood to flow more easily – particularly down below. This same mechanism counteracts cocaine’s blood vessel-constricting effects, decreasing the risk of heart problems, which can accompany a binge.

“I first took Viagra partly out of curiosity and partly because I thought it might make it easier to find my knob after I’d been drinking and doing lines all night,” says Peter (again, not his real name), a recreational user of Viagra – among other things – in his early thirties. “I’d never really thought about taking it before, but I was [on a night out] for work, and the guy I was with had some, so I gave it a go. I only took half a pill, but it definitely sorted me out. I didn’t really know what to do with it when we left [the venue]. I’ve taken it quite a few times since.”

Peter doesn’t suffer from ED, but still gets benefits from his little blue friends. “For me, the best thing about it is that I still have a hard-on after I’ve [done it the first time]. So I get bonus sex.”

There is, of course, a downside to this convenient chemical assistance. Viagra, we thought, would be a cure not just for feckless penises, but for the insecurity that underlies it. And so it was, for a while.

But the insecurity of the common man is as prevalent and varied as the common cold, and just like the sniffles, it is locked in an evolutionary arms race against the pharmaceutical industry. Men with no previous physiological or psychological need for Viagra can become dependent on it, as their faith in their unenhanced abilities dwindles.

Oddly, Viagra – in cahoots with our old friend online pornography – has set a standard for sexual performance that makes anxiety-related sexual dysfunction more likely. Two separate studies have come out recently, which talk specifically about the increase of ED among young men, because of the growth of internet pornography.

“It raises the arousal threshold,” says sexual psychologist Paula Hall. “And erectile dysfunction is a very common symptom of that. If you get used to watching really strong pornography – and that’s how you get your stimulation – then you meet a mere mortal at a club, you then can’t do it any more. Unless they’re jumping through hoops in 20 different positions.”

Hall continues: “Because any human being obviously can’t compete with the variety and the constant novelty you get with internet porn. And that actually works on a chemical in your brain and can condition your erectile response to that kind of stimuli. So there’s a massive increase in that form of erectile dysfunction.”

You may think the sensations of physical contact would override porn-programming, but digitised erotica can niftily hijack your brain and bend you to its will, which Viagra-assisted, ahem, self-love compounds.

Freedom and fallibility

Labour MP Diane Abbott recently gave a speech about what she perceives as a ‘Jack Daniel’s and Viagra culture’. It turns out she thought that was a bad thing – a manifestation of an unemployment and porn-fuelled crisis in masculine identity.

But surely the social acceptance of Viagra represents an admission of masculine fallibility and a desire to legislate for our shortcomings. In the UK, men are prescribed Viagra so that they, and their partners, can enjoy a fulfilling sex life, not so feral hoodies can stalk the streets menacing the populace with their perma-boners.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of casual recreational users take the drug for the same reasons. Although not without its controversies, recent research into drugs to boost female sexual arousal has had a positive response from female pundits. It is understandable that men would similarly view Viagra as a force for good.

Whether it’s clinical ED or the occasional attack of stress-assisted brewer’s droop, an inability to perform in the bedroom affects two people. Perhaps the ever-increasing popularity, and normality, of Viagra really suggests an evolution in the male identity, toward a more pragmatic, even modest, form. Now that might be something to get excited about.

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