Happy Birthday Viagra

To celebrate the medication's 10th anniversary, we take a look back at the little blue pill's big impact.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day, 10 years ago today, the FDA approved a new drug Sildenafil and American culture has not been the same since. Sildenafil quickly became a billion-dollar product, a household name and a cultural tome. So how come you've never heard of it? Because it's known by its brand name, Viagra. NPR's Mike Pesca has more and just a warning, this report about Viagra, like the drug itself, is intended for adults.

MIKE PESCA: Viagra's been called many things, but probably never a gateway drug, but it is. Think of the world BV and now AV, before Viagra, television commercials were tamer, Jay Leno monologues cleaner and Pfizer stock was a solid performer. Then a rock-ribbed Republican former presidential candidate started talking about erectile dysfunction, Pfizer stock rose like, well, I can't really think of an analogy, and millions of American men felt like Jaime Reidy.

Mr. JAIME REIDY (Former Drug Salesman, Pfizer; Author, " Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman"): I was saying erection 50 times a day.

PESCA: Reidy was a drug rep for Pfizer, who has since recounted his experience in a memoir titled "Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman." For Reidy, March of 1993 was a heady time.

Mr. REIDY: I got a standing ovation in one office, when the doctor opened the door and said to all the guys in the waiting room, gentleman, this is the V man. Then I got a standing ovation and that certainly never happened when I sold antihistamines.

PESCA: The culture at large seemed to take to the drug and the idea of the drug in a way that somewhat nervous Pfizer executives couldn't imagine. Steven Lamb, a New York physician who consults for Pfizer, as well as the makers of Viagra's rival Cialis and Levitra, says that before Viagra, erectile dysfunction, then known by the more stigma inducing word impotence, was hardly mentioned, even inside doctor's offices.

Dr. STEVEN LAMB (Erectile Dysfunctional Drug Consultant): Before Viagra was introduced, no doctor or very few doctors would ever even ask a patient about their erectile performance. No doctor, myself included by the way, was totally unaware of the link between erectile dysfunction and cardiovascular disease.

PESCA: Lamb says men frequently came into his office looking for Viagra only to find out they suffered from diabetes or a heart ailment. And the reason that so many people were talking so openly about erectile dysfunction is that Viagra was one of the first drugs to really take advantage of relaxed advertising rules. Direct to consumer marketing, as it's called, ushered in all those television ads that list 40 side effects and contain the phrase, "ask your doctor about." According to Dr. Lamb, they did.

Dr. LAMB: When you can universalize the disease the way you do in a commercial, many men with diabetes have erectile, many men with high blood pressure, many men who smoke, it makes the man comfortable enough to go to the doctor.

PESCA: As barriers to discussing the problem fell, late night comedians pounced. Viagra become the new mother-in-law or airline food. One study, in an Australian peer-reviewed academic journal, counted 944 Viagra references in Jay Leno monologues during the drug's first five years of existence. And whenever Viagra is in the news, as when Rush Limbaugh was stopped at the Palm Beach airport, Leno still pounces. Here he and fellow cultural pulse taker Robin Williams grow fairly tumescent with comedic possibility, to the point of failing to deliver actual punch lines.

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, The Tonight Show): You must love the Rush Limbaugh Viagra story.

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Comedian): First of all, it seems like a little redundant for him to take Viagra. The fact that he takes it and he gets taller. You know it's wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: I mean why do you need Viagra, it's a hard thing, he's a big [expletive] already. What do you need?

Mr. LENO: Whoa.

PESCA: No other drugs since the pill, not Prozac, not Ritalin, has achieved such cross-cultural cache.

Mr. KANYE WEST (Producer, Rapper): I've been through it all, the fills the falls, I'm like Niagara, but I right got back up like Viagra.

PESCA: Rap songs, comedy bits, spam emails and especially during the commercial blocks of any sporting event, Viagra is ubiquitous. The sales figures bare this out. Almost two billion dollars worth of Viagra was peddled worldwide last year. The brand spends almost 100 million dollars advertising itself in the U.S. and that's not including all those free Leno references. As Viagra stares down its next 10 years, it faces well-funded competitors, warnings that it may cause blindness and the actuarial impossibility that Hugh Hefner will live forever. But Pfizer execs also see an aging population and what seems to be the grown belief that solutions can be found in a pill. When it comes to the American psyche, Viagra has been able to achieve and sustain a connection. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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