25 Years of Viagra: A Huge Change in Attitudes About ED

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


July 18, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine.

Incredibly, 25 years ago, Bob Dole, a senator from Kansas at the time and former presidential candidate, went on national television in a commercial and discussed the fact that he was sexually impotent. You might be thinking, "What was happening then? Was this an early Jerry Springer experience or reality TV gone haywire?" No. Viagra was approved as a treatment 25 years ago this year.

Bob Dole was recruited by Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, to do commercials in which he discussed his sexual dysfunction. He was recruited for a very specific set of reasons. First, he was a distinguished, prominent, respected national figure. Second, he was conservative.

For those of you who don't remember, when 25 years ago Viagra first appeared, Pfizer was terrified that they would get attacked for promoting promiscuity by introducing a sex pill onto the market. Bob Dole was basically saying, "I have a medical problem. It's tough to talk about, but there is a treatment. I'm going to discuss the fact that I, among many other men, could use this to help that problem."

He was used in a way to deflect conservative or religious critics worried about the promotion of sex outside of marriage. Bob Dole was also well known to be married to Elizabeth Dole. This wasn't somebody who was out on the dating market. Bob Dole was a family man, and his selection was no accident. For all these reasons, Bob Dole was the first spokesperson for Viagra.

Now, as it happens, I had a role to play with this drug. Pfizer called me up and asked me to come and do a consult with them about the ethics of this brand-new treatment. I had never been asked by a drug company to do anything like this. I didn't know what I was doing. I thought about it and said, "I'll do it if you let me sit in on discussions and meetings at your New York headquarters about this drug. I want open access."

I assume they gave me open access. I went to many meetings before the FDA approved Viagra, and many discussions took place about how to roll it out. Once I got there, the one thing I insisted upon was that they had to be treating a disease. If they didn't want to get involved in criticisms about this new miracle solution to the age-old problem of sexual dysfunction, impotence wouldn't do. It wasn't a medical diagnosis, and it was kind of a very undefined situation.

Erectile dysfunction was the answer. They met with urologists, sex experts, and individuals within the company and came up with the idea that if you were unable to have an erection after trying for 6 months or more, you suffered from erectile dysfunction, and that was the group for whom they should market Viagra. I fully agreed with that.

What happened was that probably hundreds of millions of men worldwide came forward for the first time and said, "I'm ashamed and guilty. I feel stigmatized. Now, with something that might help me, I'm going to say to my doctor, I have this problem."

It's a very important lesson because 25 years later, it's still difficult for people — men and women — to discuss sexual problems, sexual dysfunction, and unhappiness with their sex life. I know we've gotten better at asking about this, but it's still difficult for patients to go into it, bring it up, and talk about it. It's something that we have to think hard about how we bring forward, honest, frank conversation and make people comfortable so they can tell us.

One thing that Viagra proved to the world is that not only is there a large amount of sexual dysfunction — some numbers as high as 35% of men over age 65 — but that sexual dysfunction is related to diseases. It's caused by hypertension, hardening of the arteries, and diabetes. It may be caused by psychological anxiety or even just a poor relationship where things are falling apart.

I think it's important that when Viagra first appeared, what Pfizer tried to do and with the marketing oriented around it was treating it as a disease, trying to treat erectile dysfunction as a symptom, and then trying to explore the underlying possible causes for that symptom.

Sadly, if we look today, we have come a long way — and not always a good way — from where Viagra started. Viagra is easily available online. Many companies say, just get online and a doctor will talk with you about a prescription. They do, but they don't explore the underlying causes anymore online of what might be causing the erectile dysfunction. They certainly may have a checkbox and ask somebody about this or that, but I've gone and tested the sites, and you can get a prescription in about 30 seconds.

It's not really done with the old medical model that accompanied the appearance of Viagra. We now treat it as a recreational drug or an aphrodisiac, none of which is true. If your body is working properly, blood will flow where it's going to go. Taking Viagra or any of the other treatments will not help improve that or enhance that.

The other problem I see today with where we are with these impotence and erectile dysfunction drugs is that we still have not developed a full array of interventions for women. It's true that men have Viagra, and it's true that that's often reimbursed. We still have women complaining that they have sexual dysfunction or loss of interest or whatever the problem might be, and we haven't been able to develop drugs that will help them.

Since Viagra's approval 25 years ago until the patent ran out in 2019, $40 billion worth of the drug has been sold. Its advertising has shifted so that it's now online and available almost on demand. I'm not sure that path has been good, but it is a reminder to us, in this 25th anniversary year, that people care about sexuality.

Doctors always need to be thinking about exploring that and trying to get a vision or a view of the health of their patients. It's still hard for many people to speak up and say if they're having problems in bed, and we want to make sure that we try our best to make that happen.

Overall, I think the approval of Viagra 25 years ago was a very good thing. It brought a terrible problem out into the open. It helped enhance the quality of life for many men. Despite where we are today, I think the introduction of that pill was actually a major achievement in pharmacology.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman. Thanks for watching.

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.