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Pop a pill, bring back the thrill: a little aqua-blue tablet has recharged the sex lives of millions and bankrolled the world's top drug firm.

Pop a Pill, Bring Ba

Sex is one of life's few recreations that remain free of charge. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is so popular. Anyone able to put a numerical value on such a pleasurable pastime is sure to make a pretty penny. Could Viagra be fulfilling this fantasy for Pfizer?

There has never been a drug company quite like Pfizer. It recently completed the US$60 billion takeover of its rival Pharmacia, allowing it to reclaim the top spot among pharmaceutical companies with an 11% share of the world market. It is now 50% bigger than its nearest challenger, GlaxoSmithKline. It has 120,000 employees and a stock market value of US$180 billion, making it the world's fifth-largest company--only Microsoft, General Electric, Exxon Mobil and WalMart are bigger.

Pfizer entered Mexico in 1958, opening offices and a plant in Toluca. In recent years, the firm has invested in upgrades to maintain its status as a world-class production facility. Sales are booming, making the nation its ninth-biggest domestic market worldwide and tops in Latin America.

Originally known by its chemical name, sildenafil citrate, Viagra was initially developed to treat angina, a condition marked by a sudden decrease of blood to the heart. However, when the drug reached testing stages, researchers noticed some unexpected side effects.

Since its launch in 1998, Viagra has been a runaway success. More than 16 million men have been formally treated, not to mention many more who have procured the drug via the thriving black market. According to its manufacturers, Viagra is prescribed by over 600,000 doctors, and nine tablets are dispensed every second. At 120 to 150 pesos a pop, the drug is having wondrous effects not only on male sexual performance but also Pfizer's bottom line--generating US$1.7 billion in sales last year.

Although the Mexican market remains relatively flaccid in terms of sales (US$54 million in 2002), there exists enormous potential. There are several forces expected to stimulate growth in the region.

Here, unlike in many other nations, Viagra is available over the counter without a prescription. As well as making the drug more freely available, this also cuts the time and cost of a doctor's visit.

Additionally, Viagra has recently been included among the 750 prescribed medicines to be made available free to the poor through the public health service. "[Erectile dysfunction] has become a serious health problem," said Mercedes Juan Lopez, secretary of Mexico's General Health Council, in a recent interview with Mexico City daily El Universal.

"For every 10 male patients who attend the urology clinics in the public health service, four suffer from erectile dysfunction," she said.

Most importantly, the Mexican market is bulging with potential customers. According to Pfizer's own studies, more than 55% of Mexican men over 40 suffer some level of erectile dysfunction. Of those, 37% have a light affliction, 10% moderate and 8% severe. This equates to a total domestic market of 7 million men, Pfizer speculates that less than 25% of sufferers have sought any kind of treatment.

Yet this also highlights a major challenge facing Viagra. In the land of machismo, few men like to admit to confidants--let alone the staff at the local pharmacy--they are anything but hot-blooded and potent.

"Men will have to come a long way in terms of their own masculinity before uptake is going to be anywhere near the right levels," said Rona Rubin, a chartered psychologist from Canterbury Christ Church University in England, who conducted a study on male attitudes toward Viagra.

"In Mexico, many men do not accept they have a legitimate medical condition that can be treated successfully," noted Elba Mercado, a Pfizer spokeswoman. "Some of them wait years before seeing a doctor. In the United States, it is much more common to address the issue once it appears. Pfizer has worked together with physicians in order to break the ice and facilitate a frank dialogue which usually yields very positive results when the appropriate diagnosis is made and the right treatment is prescribed."

A challenge to the Viagra hegemony arises from new entrants in the market. These include Levitra, a joint venture of Bayer Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline, and Cialis, from Eli Lilly and biotech firm Icos. Yet Pfizer executives believe this can only inflate the market further.

"Pfizer welcomes competition on the ED arena, since we expect the new drugs will significantly expand the market, meaning that more men with the problem seek medical help and are appropriately treated," Mercado commented.

Viagra is generating a pretty penny for Pfizer. However, in the face of stiff competition and prudish customers, will these little blue pills show stamina?

Rawdon Messenger is a Mexico City based freelance writer and columnist for the Evening Standard of London.
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Title Annotation:Mexican market for Viagra
Author:Messenger, Rawdon
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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