TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Men who are bashful about needing help in the bedroom no longer have to go to the drugstore to buy that little blue pill.
In a first for the drug industry, Pfizer Inc. told The Associated Press that the drugmaker will begin selling its popular erectile dysfunction pill Viagra directly to patients on its website.
Men still will need a prescription to buy the blue, diamond-shaped pill on viagra.com, but they no longer have to face a pharmacist to get it filled. And for those who are bothered by Viagra's steep $25-a-pill price, Pfizer is offering three free pills with the first order and 30 percent off the second one.
Pfizer's bold move blows up the drug industry's distribution model. Drugmakers don't sell medicines directly to patients. Instead, they sell in bulk to wholesalers, who then distribute the drugs to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices.
But the world's second-largest drugmaker is trying a new strategy to tackle a problem that plagues the industry. Unscrupulous online pharmacies increasingly offer patients counterfeit versions of Viagra and other brand-name drugs for up to 95 percent off with no prescription needed. Patients don't realize the drugs are fake or that legitimate pharmacies require a prescription.
Other major drugmakers likely will watch Pfizer's move closely. If it works, drugmakers could begin selling other medicines that are rampantly counterfeited and sold online, particularly treatments for non-urgent conditions seen as embarrassing. Think: diet drugs, medicines for baldness and birth control pills.
"If it works, everybody will hop on the train," says Les Funtleyder, a health care strategist at private equity fund Poliwogg who believes Pfizer's site will attract "fence-sitters" who are nervous about buying online.
The online Viagra sales are Pfizer's latest effort to combat a problem that has grown with the popularity of the Internet.
In recent years, Americans have become more comfortable with online shopping, with many even buying prescription drugs online. That's particularly true for those who don't have insurance, are bargain hunters or want to keep their medicine purchases private.
Few realize that the vast majority of online pharmacies don't follow the rules.
The Internet is filled with illegitimate websites that lure customers with spam emails and professional-looking websites that run 24-hour call centers. A January study by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which accredits online pharmacies, found that only 257 of 10,275 online pharmacy sites it examined appeared legitimate.
Experts say the fake drugs such websites sell can be dangerous. That's because they don't include the right amount of the active ingredient, if any, or contain toxic substances such as heavy metals, lead paint and printer ink. They're generally made in filthy warehouses and garages in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Online buyers are "playing Russian roulette," says Matthew Bassiur, vice president of global security at New York-based Pfizer.
"The factories are deplorable. I've seen photographs of these places," he says. "You wouldn't even want to walk in them, let alone ingest anything made in them."
Pfizer, which invented the term "erectile dysfunction," has long been aggressive in fighting counterfeiters. It conducts undercover investigations and works with authorities around the globe, with good reason.