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. told The Associated Press that the drugmaker 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 Viagra's steep $25-a-pill price, Pfizer is offering three free pills with the first order and 30 percent off the second one.
Pfizer's bold move blows up the drug industry's distribution model. Drugmakers don't 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 world's 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 don't realize the drugs are fake or that legitimate pharmacies require a prescription.
Other major drugmakers likely will watch Pfizer's 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 Pfizer's site will attract "fence-sitters" who are nervous about buying online.
The online Viagra sales are Pfizer's latest effort to combat a problem that has grown with the popularity of the Internet.