Viagra nation

Debra J. Saunders
Posted: Mar 26, 2004 12:00 AM

The new "We are the champions" ads belie the pretense that Viagra is for men whose poor health results in sexual problems. Say goodbye to Bob Dole's awkward confession that prostate cancer surgery left him with erectile dysfunction and, ergo, Viagra.

Make way for the Viagra era, brought to you in an unapologetically phallic Viagra race car piloted by NASCAR driver Mark Martin. (And, shucks, the Viagra mobile was the first car to break down in the Daytona 500.) These days, while Queen's stirring anthem provides the soundtrack, a postman, businessmen on their way to work and a guy who had been washing his car dance for joy over the trademark little blue pill.

Yes, there is the token man in a wheelchair and an old guy in the "champions" ad. Still, it's clear, as everyone on the block is flush with the promise of the drug, that Viagra manufacturer Pfizer is targeting the product at healthy, middle-aged men. They take a pill, and in their own minds at least, they're champs. There must be legions of such men, as there are legions of erectile-dysfunction ads.

As the President's Council on Bioethics concluded in a 2003 report, "Viagra, a remedy devised for male impotence, is increasingly used by the non-impotent to enhance sexual performance."

It's no accident that the "champions" ads appear as Pfizer's market share has shrunk. Viagra had a monopoly on erectile dysfunction until rivals Levitra and Cialis aired ads during the testosterone-rich Super Bowl. Viagra now can boast only a 66 percent share of the erectile-dysfunction medication market.

Enter a new company with Avlimil, a competing product that promises to enhance sexual desire in women. Who knows if the non-prescription pill works? The Pfizer folks had tried to develop a Viagra for women but last month gave up, The New York Times reported.

What's important is that women now can claim at least the illusion of sex-pill parity. And illusion it is, says bio-ethicist Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania. "If you think you are going to have sex more frequently, (Viagra) won't help you," explained Caplan, who once advised Pfizer on Viagra. Caplan said Viagra works for men with a "medicalized" problem, but other than its placebo effect, it is not an "aphrodisiac."

Caplan was careful to explain that he has no problem with a sex pill, were one to appear on the market. "You can take short cuts. You can take a sex pill, if you want to enhance your performance -- I'm OK with that," he said.

I half-agree with Caplan, except it's difficult to feel really OK about a sex pill when TV already is busting with ads for little pills that promise to alleviate life's problems -- anxiety, shyness. The message behind these messages is that we shouldn't experience anxiety, negative emotions or the effects of aging.

Which means that people are less likely to deal with what lies at the root of what they are (or aren't) feeling. Too much stress? Too little enjoyment? On TV, Avlimil women confess that the pressures of life have sapped their libido. So, should they pop a pill or try to balance their lives in a way that makes them more sensual? They don't listen to their bodies. Their husbands don't bring them flowers and take them on a romantic getaway. They have no medical problem, yet they take a pill.

Who cannot but think of soma, the drug that dulled minds in Aldous Huxley's seminal novel, "Brave New World"? San Francisco Chronicle researcher Johnny Miller found me this quote from the 1932 book about the soma life: "Work, play -- at 60 our powers and tastes are what they were at 17. Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking -- thinking!"

Readers and thinkers -- they used to be life's champions. That was before the little blue pill.