Viagra in Vietnam

Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (May 28, 1998)

Authorities in Ho Chi Minh City banned sales of the new impotence drug Viagra yesterday, citing doubts about its safety. From across the globe, reports are trickling in--two from Brazil, three from Egypt, six in the United States--of men who died or were hospitalized while taking the drug. As a Brazilian physician noted, it is not at all clear that Viagra was to blame, since the people who need it most tend to be older men, who are most likely to have other medical problems. Also, Pfizer has warned the gay community against using the drug with amyl nitrate, or "poppers." In any event, the warning label states that people on certain types of heart medication should not take this drug, which works by increasing blood flow.

If human nature is any guide, however, it will take a faint heart indeed to resist the appeal of Viagra. Even though it is officially on sale only in America, the drug is rapidly making its way to eager consumers everywhere. Banning it in the city formerly known as Saigon may increase the price, but it probably won't depress demand.

The current Vietnamese cost of $15 per dose--double a U.S. discount price--is hideously expensive by Vietnamese standards, and about one week's wages measured in Nike-critic terms. Yet black and gray marketeers the world over understand that until someone finds the fountain of youth, Viagra is a guaranteed best seller at any cost.

They're already wolfing down those blue tablets in Cairo, and clamoring for them in Seoul. It's only a matter of time before scary death stories are replaced by heart-rending tales of ruined lives and hungry families as Dad roams the streets trying to score some Viagra. Official efforts to stop or regulate the flow are going to make attempts to police the Internet look like child's play.

Because it appears to have the desired technical effect in many cases, Viagra represents a scientific advancement over older, less reliable potions and methods--ranging from deer antlers to acupuncture to implants. It may save the lives of endangered Rhinos and other animals slaughtered over the centuries for their supposedly restorative bits. Unlike many modern miracle medicines that are unavailable in poor countries, Viagra is going universal at the speed of light--the black market, it seems, being a more efficient delivery method than official channels fraught with regulation.

It all might be more entertaining to watch if the downsides weren't apparent, too. Undoubtedly some people are already spending money on fake tablets, though the power of the placebo effect should not be underestimated. The more famous and popular Viagra becomes, the less likely it is to come via a doctor's office except in the strictest national regimes, or to come packaged with readily understandable warning labels.

If the makers of Viagra are correct, however, most people can take it safely. As for wasting the money of those who can ill afford to waste any, racetracks, bars, heroin and many thousands of other temptations already exist. At least there is a healthy and life-affirming instinct behind the desire for this particular substance. As with so many other things that sound too good to be true, this one may not live up to expectations, either. But there's always something to be said for the restorative powers of hope itself.

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