15 years later, Viagra again gets attention

Viagra has been an attention getter since Pfizer won Food and Drug Administration approval in 1998 for the little blue pill that treats erectile dysfunction. It became the punch line for thousands of jokes, a blessing for millions of men, and a blockbuster for Pfizer.

While Viagra must now share the ED territory with competitors, it still holds about 40 percent of the $5 billion market, tops, and has the distinction of being the most counterfeited drug. Pfizer is undertaking a novel sales approach intended at both boosting sales and undercutting the knock-off market for the drug.

Pfizer on Monday launched Viagra home delivery. Men, with valid prescriptions, can go online at Viagra.com and discreetly purchase their pills directly from the company. Pfizer is collaborating with CVS/pharmacy, which will verify prescriptions and process orders.

Pfizer expects the privacy of online purchases will boost sales, while offering a safe and reliable source for the ED drug. Viagra purchases online now are notoriously unreliable. A 2011 Pfizer Global Security analysis of 22 websites purporting to provide Viagra found 80 percent of the orders were counterfeit.

It is an interesting and creative way to cut into the often unscrupulous online marketplace, but unfortunately the high price of Viagra - $25 per pill - will drive some to still take chances. The company is offering an introductory offer of three free pills with the first order, 30 percent off the second. It needs to do better. Pfizer has domestic patent protection on Viagra through 2020.

This is another indication of how the Internet is changing the nature of buying and selling. Direct sale of Viagra skirts the traditional model in which drug manufacturers sell to a wholesale network that then distributes to pharmacies and hospitals. Pfizer and other pharmaceutical giants are sure to watch the experiment that could lead to expanded direct sales of other medications. That in turn could have implications for wholesalers and corner pharmacy stores.

Such is the nature of rapid change and challenge in a digital age.

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