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Erectile dysfunction drug coverage flops – then rises again with a feel good story

February 16th, 2007

Dr Petra

Is it me or has this week turned into the international festival of press coverage for Viagra? It began on Monday and repeated on Wednesday media coverage misinforming us that Viagra would be on sale over the counter in Boots pharmacies from Valentine’s day.

Reports didn’t explain that the drug wasn’t really going to be available on the High Street but that three branches of Boots were simply going to test whether making the drug available over the pharmacy counter was a viable treatment option. Of course we shouldn’t even know of a pilot scheme of this kind, as it’s bad science to promote a trial before it’s even started. But Boots, Pfizer and the media didn’t seem to care.

But yesterday – disaster! What with all the media fuss, men turned up to the pilot pharmacies to buy their Viagra over the counter only to discover that they would have to have to book an appointment with a pharmacist and come back the following Monday to see them. Hardly surprising if the media tells men that the drugs on sale over the counter on Valentine’s Day. I suspect it wasn’t just the case that people turned up at the three pilot pharmacies, but that men came to most Boots branches to get their hands on the blue pills only to discover they weren’t available.

Although the media hadn’t bothered to criticise the way the pilot was being run – or seem to realise they were being used as direct to consumer advertisers – they suddenly spotted a new angle. That erectile dysfunction drugs had been promised and now men were being denied them.

Cue endless stories of men who had really longed to give their wives a treat on Valentine’s Day but were prevented from this because they had to wait for a health check first. Well, duh that was always going to happen. Viagra is a drug and you need a health check before you can take it. This did appear in the small print of some media coverage, but certainly not in the headlines. Boots blamed the media coverage; the media blamed Boots and Pfizer for raising men’s hopes (but obviously didn’t see that it had played any part in the fracas).

Pfizer didn’t officially say much but there were continued mentions within yesterday’s press coverage that men found it difficult to see the doc, had to call and make an appointment, and were embarrassed to talk about sexual problems. All of which serves to reinforce the Big Pharma party line that men are being denied treatment they need. To be honest if you want the drug from your pharmacy or your GP the approach is the same. You’ll have to make an appointment, have to have a check and it may turn out the drug’s not right for you. It’s not a case that you have to make an appointment to see the doc but can just by the drug with no questions asked at the chemist.

So most of the press coverage yesterday was hostile. It seemed like the pilot – and the attempt to get a lot of media coverage for Boots and Pfizer – had backfired.

But today the papers are full of another Viagra story. The drug saves the lives of premature babies. All together now – ahhhh.

Here are some example headlines:
‘Premature baby brought back from the dead by Viagra’ – The Guardian
‘Viagra saved our baby’ – The Mirror
‘Tiny Lewis saved by Viagra’ – The Sun
‘Viagra brings baby back from the brink’ – Yorkshire Post

Now before I’m shot down for being unkind to preemie babies of course I’m not against giving quality care to sick children. The drug is known to be used to treat other conditions than erectile dysfunction and in this case it was used to improve the circulation in a premature baby. Obviously the parents of the baby will be delighted and it is amazing when medicine can save a baby’s life.

But call me cynical (and I know you do) isn’t this just a bit too convenient after all the bad press the drug was getting yesterday for the media portrayal of the Boots/Pfizer fiasco? I mean you get loads of good publicity, then a day’s worth of bad publicity, but all’s restored by the end of the week when a fabulous feel good story puts the drug back in the headlines in a positive way. You can hardly argue with a drug company that not only promises to change men’s sex lives but saves preemie babies too.

Could it be possible that the negative publicity yesterday led to this story being released? Or is this just part of a wider campaign to get Viagra mentioned in the papers every day this week?

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but in case it wasn’t, what are the ethics of a company when faced with some bad publicity has to rely on exploiting the case of a premature baby to get our sympathy?

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