Britain is new battleground in Viagra wars

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More than two million British men will soon be at the centre of the biggest drugs war of the decade, in a battle to sell new treatments for impotence.

More than two million British men will soon be at the centre of the biggest drugs war of the decade, in a battle to sell new treatments for impotence.

More than five years after its launch, Viagra is being taken on by two of the world's most powerful drugs companies in an attempt to win control of a multibillion-pound market for male impotence treatments.

According to City analysts, the market for impotence pills could soon prove the most lucrative sector of the drugs industry, targeting the 2.3 million British men who suffer from "erectile dysfunction". The drugs giants are planning to use legal tactics, lobbying campaigns directed at doctors and "awareness-raising" initiatives to push their brands.

The first salvo was fired last week when the US drugs giant Eli Lilly and ICOS Corporation, a biotech company, launched Cialis on the British market. They boast that their yellow, almond-shaped tablet acts faster and lasts longer than Viagra – made by the US company Pfizer – taking effect in 16 minutes and lasting for up to 24 hours.

Yet before summer, the German giant Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, the world's second largest pharmaceutical company, will jointly unveil their own treatment, Levitra, which they claim will be the most potent yet.

The value of the market for "erectile dysfunction" (ED) drugs is potentially vast, estimated at up to $6bn worldwide by 2008. Viagra had worldwide sales of $1.7bn (£1.1bn) last year but in Britain the market is largely untapped, despite Viagra's "blockbuster" status. And Britain is expected to be one of the drugs' companies main battlegrounds.

Only about 10 per cent of British sufferers are being treated and drugs firms and impotence charities want to persuade those men who have so far refused to seek help to overcome the embarrassment and sense of failure the condition brings.

The drugs companies and the Impotence Association, the main charity in the field, last week released surveys underlining the extent of the condition. The association claims about 45 per cent of men affected suffered often severe difficulties in their personal relationships. Two-thirds of sufferers also admitted to feelings of anxiety, low self-confidence and depression.

"It takes a lot of courage for someone to go to the doctor," said Ann Tailor, the association's director. "To us, it's fantastic we've now got a choice of drugs. In a lot of cases, if Viagra doesn't work or people aren't told how to take it properly, they will never try again."

Industry experts expect the drugs firms to sidestep the EU's strict laws banning the public advertising of prescription drugs by funding "awareness" campaigns, with their corporate logos attached.

The industry will make its greatest profits from private prescriptions. Viagra costs from £30 to £35 for four 100mg tablets, and Cialis will be priced at a similar level. The National Health Service has restricted their use to sufferers with specific medical problems or illnesses such as diabetes, spina bifida, prostate cancer, liver failure or spinal cord injuries. So the drugs firms will instead stage expensive marketing campaigns to woo doctors.

In Britain and Europe, these campaigns will be even more intense because Viagra's rivals are currently banned from sale in the US because of legal action by Pfizer. Despite losing its court action in the EU, it claims that both rivals exploit its patented research. All three drugs work by blocking the same enzyme, PDE5, to increase blood flow to the penis.

Pfizer spent $86m marketing Viagra last year, and that figure is expected to double.

"I think you can expect something pretty spectacular when the Levitra campaign finally gets going," said a source inside GlaxoSmithKline.

'My doctor told me to forget about sex'

For months, Kevin Henderson used to scour the television pages for an excuse not to go to bed with his wife, simply to avoid his impotence being exposed.

Too ashamed to admit to his condition, Mr Henderson, 44, would insist on watching a late-night documentary, waiting until early morning before slipping into bed. Sometimes he slept on the sofa.

"I got to the stage where I went to bed at three or four o'clock in the morning, for fear of my wife wanting to make love," he said. "The problem with men is their ego and their pride. It's the thing they can't talk about, whether to a man or a woman."

A picture framer living in Tooting, south London, Mr Henderson is certainly not alone. A vast majority of the 2.3 million, mostly middle-aged, British men suffering from erectile dysfunction, the most common form of impotence, live with this secrecy, denial and sense of failure.

Like many other people with insulin-dependent diabetes, Mr Henderson has suffered from impotence for two years, quietly resorting to unofficial sources of help. He bought Viagra from a friend and a vacuum pump for the penis from a sex magazine. He even tried the drug Muse, a tiny pellet inserted into the tip of the penis. Nothing worked.

Nor did his doctor help. Since Mr Henderson suffers from a back complaint, he was told to forget having sex. So his denial continued. He told his diabetes nurse only a month ago. "She nearly fell off her chair," he said. "She was both relieved I'd told her and annoyed, because I'd been seeing her for two years."

Luckily, his wife, Florence, has been extremely supportive. "She comforted me when I was upset about it, and put my head straight when I have thought I was psychologically affected," he said.

Mr Henderson eventually outed himself to his friends after discovering one of them – who also has diabetes – was also impotent. They shared experiences, and his confidence increased. A month ago, he went public, taking part in a satellite TV chat show.

He has still endured digs about being involved in the "limp-dick society", but the arrival of two new impotence drugs, Cialis and Levitra, has left him feeling optimistic about finally finding a treatment that works. "At last there's more than just a couple on the market," he said, "and that means there are more chances of getting a problem solved for thousands of other men out there."

Severin Carrell

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