Men Around the Globe Lust After Viagra

It is a headache for world health officials, a boon for black markets from Mexico to Egypt and the hottest idea since Charles Atlas promised to rescue skinny wretches who got sand kicked in their face.

What else? Viagra.

From the slums of Cairo to fashionable villas in Milan, the world has gone gaga over the anti-impotence pill. Worried authorities are cautioning that Viagra can help those with real medical needs but won’t produce instant Don Juans. That, though, hasn’t stopped men around the globe from beseeching doctors for a prescription, paying up to $800 a bottle on the black market and even flying across the Atlantic to get the drug.

“All day long, it’s ‘Viagra, Viagra,’ ” said Juana Rivera, a pharmacy employee in Ciudad Juarez, across the U.S.-Mexican border from El Paso. The flood of clients seeking the drug, she said, suggests a serious problem out there. “Perhaps the statistics on impotence are too low.”

Viagra, with runaway demand in the United States, still hasn’t arrived in much of the world. The hype has, however. That is driving thousands to seek the pills, legally–or otherwise.

In Mexico, the frenzy over “the pleasure pill” has been so intense that, when two newspapers recently organized an online “chat” about Viagra, 200 people responded in one hour. “If I take it, will I become Superman?” one demanded to know.

Men have stampeded to pharmacies, even though the drug will not legally be available here for several weeks.

Maria Beatriz Vega, manager of a small drugstore in Mexico City’s sprawling Tepito contraband market, claims 500 people a day request the pill. The men, however, don’t seem to be focusing on impotence, she says. They are focusing on sexual marathons.

“The more the Mexican man has, the more he wants,” Vega explained, referring to the traditional macho culture. “Viagra is trendy,” she said, adding swiftly, “But we don’t have it.”

But in another stand in the crowded market, a vendor was happy to discreetly slip a bottle of “Viagra” to a customer. The price: 350 pesos–about $42–for 50 pills. The bottle was clearly a fake, with a smudged, mimeographed label. When the would-be client identified herself as a reporter, the vendor fled.

Illegal sales are thriving in other areas too. In Taiwan, men are reportedly paying up to $60 a pill on the black market. In Turkey, the price is $520 to $800 a bottle, according to press reports.

One of the few places where the pill is legally available is the tiny state of San Marino, population 25,000. Viagra arrived there a few days before its American debut in March. Within days, the hilltop republic inside Italy was overrun by Italian men eager to check out the sex pill.

San Marino’s six pharmacies have thousands of back orders for Viagra, available only with a prescription from a urologist or an andrologist, a doctor who treats male complaints. San Marino’s only andrologist is getting 300 calls a day about Viagra.

Sorry, Latin lovers; he’s booked through June.

Italians aren’t the only ones leaving the country in search of Viagra. Englishmen have been flocking to another tiny European state, Andorra, located between France and Spain, where Viagra is available. Even the ocean is no barrier to those seeking the he-man’s Holy Grail: English dailies have reported hundreds of men are traveling to New York to buy the pill.

To judge by inquiries at doctors’ offices, Viagra will sell briskly once it becomes legally available worldwide.

In Israel, Dr. Alexander Olshnitzki said women are calling him about Viagra, without telling the men in their lives.

“I have been approached by 20 women who claimed that their husbands cannot satisfy their needs in bed,” said Olshnitzki, according to a report in the newspaper Maariv. “Some told me, ‘I want to put a pill in his food or in a glass of wine and make great passionate love with him.’ ”

Such misconceptions about Viagra’s use have worried health authorities, who are warning that men should only use the medicine for specific impotence problems–not to become sexual dynamos.

For cartoonists and humorists, Viagra is the best thing to come along since Bill Clinton’s social life.

One typical cartoon, in an Egyptian newspaper, showed an elderly man laid out dead and surrounded by tearful relatives.

“What did you say was his last word?” one asks.

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Rome contributed to this report. Also contributing were Janet Stobart of The Times’ London Bureau, Aline Kazandjian of the Cairo Bureau, Batsheva Sobelman of the Jerusalem Bureau, Brinley Bruton of the Mexico City Bureau and Times special correspondent Amberin Zaman in Ankara, Turkey.