TRENTON, N.J. — 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. said it 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 Viagras steep $25-a-pill price, Pfizer is offering three free pills with the first order and 30 percent off the second one.
Pfizers bold move blows up the drug industrys distribution model. Drugmakers dont 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 worlds 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 dont realize the drugs are fake or that legitimate pharmacies require a prescription.
Other major drugmakers likely will watch Pfizers 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 Pfizers site will attract fence-sitters who are nervous about buying online.
The online Viagra sales are Pfizers 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. Thats particularly true for those who dont have insurance, are bargain hunters or want to keep their medicine purchases private.
Few realize that the vast majority of online pharmacies dont follow the rules.
The Internet is filled with illegitimate websites that lure customers with 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. Theyre generally made in filthy warehouses and garages in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.