Maybe Viagra Needs An HIV/STD Warning Label
A San Francisco Public Health Department study has officially plopped the long-rumored dead squirrel on the table: Viagra is linked to higher levels of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Therefore, say department officials, it should have a specific warning label. Predictably, manufacturer Pfizer disagrees.
Among 844 men surveyed at city STD clinics, 17% reported using Viagra in the past year, with gay/bi- men four times more likely to do so than heterosexual men. At a median age of 32, it's pretty clear that they were using it recreationally, not for medical purposes. Additionally, about two-thirds of them mixed it with Ecstasy and/or amphetamines. Speed (included in Ecstasy) makes it difficult to keep an erection, so Viagra to the rescue -- but the combination is very likely to contribute to major rounds of condomless sex. The Viagra users were about 50% more likely to have an STD and to have more partners.
As a result, the SFPHD wants Viagra's label to be specific about the risk of disease. However, Pfizer says the label already warns that it does not protect against STDs and advises doctors to discuss safe sex with their patients.
Pfizer is being disingenuous: It knows its warning is a worthless pro forma exercise. The health department, however, is missing the point, other than to generate publicity for the issue. Horny young men are not going to pay one whit of attention to a warning on a label, so a more aggressive communication program is needed.
That goes for Austin, too. Young men here pop Viagra like Altoids, and frequently with Ecstasy. It's no wonder that Austin has recently seen a flurry of syphilis cases and continues to have a disproportionate level of HIV infection. At least San Francisco's health department is making some publicity waves, whether their gambit works or not. Somehow, young men -- especially young gay/bi men -- need to connect with a message that will result in meaningful behavior change.