Something for the weekend

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As a young lad growing up in small-town England, my parents would insist that every six to eight weeks I visited the local barber for my ritual cropping. I remember clearly the long lines of aging men, the awful out-of-date magazines about hunting and farming, the loud clip-clopping of well-oiled scissors, the piles of hair everywhere, and the overpowering smell of cheap aftershave. And when it was finally my turn in the chair, no matter what I would say to Eric—who was just about the oldest man I had ever seen at that time—he'd execute the same short-back-and-sides routine, often without looking, and usually throwing in a painful nick to the earlobe at no extra charge.

I also remember that he would ask the older men on their way out if they wanted “something for the weekend,” and if they did he would open the wooden drawer behind the old cash register and hand them a small colored packet. As I got older, I realized my barber was supplying contraceptives, perfectly legally, of course. This was classic 1970s Britain: Eric's customers were of the Monty-Python “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” mold, and they appreciated the secret language and the lack of fuss and embarrassment that this all-male environment afforded their transactions.

I was reminded of these memories last month when Boots, the largest pharmacy chain in the UK, announced it would begin trial sales of Viagra over the counter at three of its stores. The (London) Times described the target market as “men who are shy of the doctor.” But this didn't seem to make sense to me. Aside from the hugely inflated price ($98 for four pills), the notion of Manchester males standing in the Viagra line at their local drug store waiting to have their blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked hardly seemed less embarrassing than asking their physician for a prescription.

There are other interesting elements to this story. For one, launching the trial on February 14—effectively hawking it as a Valentine's Day special—does little to dispel the common notion that Viagra is a leisure drug, as opposed to a treatment option for a serious disease.

But there is a potentially significant benefit of the program: it acts as a general health screening for men, and therefore should the tests reveal problems, patients would be referred to their doctors. “Erectile dysfunction can often be a marker for a more serious underlying medical condition,” confirmed a spokesperson for Boots. And it has to be said that men—especially British men—are notorious for avoiding doctors at all costs.

Whether or not the trial is a success remains to be seen. The reaction of the British public, at least the online comment-posting public, has been skeptical. “It's a bloody rip-off!” seems to be the consensus. “Why anyone would want to pay $25 a tablet when it's sold on the Internet for $1.50 is beyond me,” posted Paul from Rochester at The Times Online. Worse still, the response from Richard of London: “Paul, you are talking about generic drugs that are not legal in the UK for a number of reasons. Anyone considering taking generic drugs does so at their own risk.” Even the stiffest competitors of generics might find that statement scary.

So while the UK may be ahead in OTC (Boots has also tested sales of Xenical), the knowledge with which Americans discuss medications online seems, anecdotally, superior to that of their British counterparts.

Perhaps there's something in consumer communications after all?

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