Impotence pill invades parties

MIAMI – Viagra, the tiny, blue, diamond-shaped pill that gained fame as the impotence wonder drug with Bob Dole as its spokesman three years ago, has forged an underground following among young men as a thrill pill.

Healthcare experts say they continue to see a spike in the number of Viagra abusers who are turning to clubs, the Internet, gyms or other countries to get the trendy pill. And its recent recreational popularity has alarmed health educators and doctors, who warn that these users may be setting themselves up for potentially dangerous or even lethal risks.

Mixed with certain nitrate-based heart medications or with cocaine, “poppers” and designer drugs such as ecstasy, Viagra may lower blood pressure or cause heart attacks, even death.

“If they are not having a problem to begin with, they should not be taking the drug. It’s almost like taking a cough medicine to put you to sleep when you don’t have a cough,” said Dr. Bruce Kava, assistant professor of urology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, who has received inquiries on where to buy the drug.Officials at Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company that makes Viagra, say they are aware of the drug’s growing recreational use. They package the drug with warnings that urge patients taking nitrate-based drugs such as nitroglycerin not to take Viagra.

“Viagra is a prescription medicine that should be used for men who suffer from erectile dysfunction,” said Geoff Cook, a spokesman for the New York City-based company.

Doctors also say Viagra will not enhance sexual performance for men who are not impotent.

“It is not an aphrodisiac,” said Coral Gables sex therapist Marilyn Volker, who regularly speaks to college students about sex. During her lectures, male college students, even middle-school boys, have peppered her with questions about how to get Viagra for fraternity parties and about the drug’s effects. She warns: “When you start combining loads of chemicals in your body, it’s Russian roulette.”

Viagra was introduced by prescription in 1998 as the miracle cure for impotence. It works by blocking a chemical that inhibits erections and by increasing blood flow. Studies have shown that it helps 70 to 80 percent of men when taken one hour before sex.

In boosting blood flow, however, Viagra may be dangerous if the user has hypertension or heart problems. Since the drug’s approval, at least 130 Viagra users who were legitimately taking the medication have died from problems associated with using Viagra and nitrate-based medicines or from the stress of sexual activity, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The bigger risk to those taking Viagra without a prescription, however, comes from mixing the drug with illegal drugs such as cocaine or ecstasy – both of which increase blood pressure and heart rate, doctors say.

Community activists in Hollywood, Calif., began issuing stern warnings to clubgoers about mixing Viagra with poppers (amyl and butryl nitrate) after three men in their 20s and 30s died from mixing the drugs, said Kathy Watt, of the Los Angeles-area Van Ness Recovery House, a drug rehabilitative home for gays and lesbians.

“It’s too much oomph for the heart,” she said. “You take two things that open up the heart blood vessels and it’s too much power for the punch.”

In South Florida, there is no information on whether Viagra caused any deaths. It is not a part of the screening in suspected drug overdoses, said Broward Medical Examiner Joshua Perper.

Dr. Lee Hearns, director of toxicology at the Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office, said investigators won’t look for Viagra unless they are told the victim had a medical history of using the drug.

“As much as it is being used, we are probably missing it a lot,” Hearns said.Local health educators have seen a surge among young men taking the drug, especially those mixing Viagra with ecstasy, sometimes called the “hug drug” because it stimulates the user’s sense of touch. Ecstasy also reduces libido and sexual function.

“It’s the big aphrodisiac among the disco party crowd,” said Easton Dunn, health coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida. “They add it to their alphabet of drugs – X, K, GHB.”

The group plans to fan out to area clubs and bars in upcoming weeks with posters warning of the dangers of doing drugs such as Viagra with other designer drugs.Though Viagra is available by prescription only, recreational users are finding it through a black market that has law enforcement agencies taking notice. It can be ordered through the Internet from “Buy Viagra Now” ads. Health educators warn that the product for sale may be a cheap imitation.

The drug also is bought in locker-room gyms or on dance floors for $20 a tablet – more than twice its normal cost.

Clubgoers say that mixing Viagra with ecstasy as their night winds down counteracts the effects of ecstasy and restores prowess in the bedroom.”It’s become more commonplace,” says Dwayne, 30, a healthy South Beach, Fla., Viagra user who did not want his last name used.

He has bought the drug from friends at various clubs and pops the pill toward the end of the night.

He knows the risks but ignores them.

“It makes me feel invincible,” he said. “It works much better when you don’t have a problem.”