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Pleasure in a pill?

Company claims its herbal remedy will cure women's sexual dysfunctions

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

By Theresa Agovino, The Associated Press

The success of Viagra has companies racing to achieve a female equivalent, and one herbal product's claims of effectiveness are stirring debate on whether any one drug can be the answer for women.

"They have Viagra. Now we have Avlimil," its makers boast in magazine and television advertisements.

Because it is an herbal treatment, Avlimil didn't require the extensive study and tests necessary for Food and Drug Administration approval. But that does not prevent it, and others like it, from promoting themselves as giving women what Viagra offers men.

Since the 1998 launch of Viagra, which racked up $1.7 billion in sales last year for Pfizer Inc. as a treatment for male sexual disfunction, at least 10 pharmaceutical companies have undertaken development of a similar drug for women, according to market research firm Decision Resources.

Their efforts were spurred on by a 1999 study that said 43 percent of women have difficulties with sex. Decision Resources estimates the global market for an effective treatment at between $2.7 billion to $3.2 billion by 2006.

Avlimil's splashy promotion has helped intensify debate over how to help women with sexual problems, as has a January article in The British Medical Journal that accuses drug companies of exaggerating female sexual dysfunction to peddle medicine.

No one questions that many women have difficulties with libido, arousal and orgasm. But because women's sexuality is more complicated and psychologically driven than that of men, many question how key any drug would be to treatment.

"For women, arousal and desire starts in the brain. Women's sexual dysfunction often has a psychological component," says Dr. Adelaide Nardone, a gynecologist and obstetrician who is also a consultant to Vagisil, a line of women's health products.

Nardone said drugs may help the women whose sexual difficulties are tied to physical conditions. But since the conditions are diverse, it is unlikely one drug will help all women.

Since Avlimil's launch two months ago, 30,000 people have purchased it, said Susan Cossman, vice president of marketing of Warner Health Care, a division of Wagner Pharmaceuticals. A month's supply costs $49.25

Wagner is spending between $3 million to $5 million on polished ads in magazines such as Health and Ladies Home Journal and cable television stations like Lifetime that offer programming for women.

Not every one is buying the marketing.

"Just what we need -- more ads that try to appeal to a woman's fear that she isn't normal,' said Dr. Leonore Tiefer, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.

Tiefer believes drug companies are trying to create medical problems out of the natural ebbs and flows of a woman's sex life. She says that as females age they may not have as much intercourse or as many orgasms, but enjoy other sensual pleasures.

"Not having an orgasm is not a medical problem," said Tiefer, who started www.fsd-alert.org to highlight what she says in the hyping of the condition. "Sex isn't like a broken ankle or a gall bladder operation. It is arbitrary and is about what you do and what you like." Other doctors say women with sexual problems deserve medical help.

"Pfizer didn't create female sexual dysfunction," said Dr. Andrew Goldstein, director of the Sexual Wellness Center in Annapolis, Maryland. He is working on a testosterone patch, designed for women with low sexual desire, for Procter & Gamble.

"Osteoporosis is a natural part of aging, but that doesn't mean we don't keep people from trying to break their hips," he added.

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