Experts Warn of Self-Treatment for Impotence

<i> William Hines and Judith Randal are medical writers based in Washington. </i>

Of all ailments, real or imagined, that afflict American men in today’s sex-obsessed society, few strike closer to home than impotence--the inability to attain or maintain erection during intercourse.

So it is hardly surprising that this problem, which afflicts millions of men of all ages, should be the focus of hard-sell merchandising of questionable remedies.

A “male stimulant” industry has sprung up across the land, hawking its wares on television, in girlie magazines and direct-mail advertising, driving up the price of raw materials and separating desperate males from significant sums of money.


Many leading experts warn that this industry really sells hope--the same commodity others peddle in the form of hair-growth or weight-loss products that medical science disavows. But many doctors say self-treatment with non-standard impotence remedies can be worse than worthless--it can be dangerous.

Impotence may be a sign of life-threatening problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure that need medical attention.

“There is no medication when taken orally that has shown any change in the ability to achieve or sustain an erection,” says Dr. Irwin Goldstein of Boston University, a recognized authority on impotence. The Food and Drug Administration, based on an advisory committee study, agrees and is considering outlawing non-prescription aphrodisiacs, as sexual stimulants are technically known.

Impotence can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the underlying cause. These include surgical implantation of prosthetic devices in the penis, surgery to increase blood flow to that organ, and the injection--with a physician’s instructions--of a prescription drug called papaverine into the penis before intercourse.

Meanwhile, the sales pitch goes on, most spectacularly in a television show called “Let’s Talk,” a 30-minute program in the format of a Phil Donahue or Oprah Winfrey-type panel discussion with audience participation. Produced by an Arizona TV packager that also makes programs for baldness cures and weight-loss products, “Let’s Talk” sells its hope in the form of Y-Bron, a concoction of half-strength vodka flavored with yohimbine, an African tree-bark extract long regarded as a folk remedy for flagging sexual ardor. The price: $49.95 plus $4.50 postage and handling for a 16-day supply.

The show features a host (Lyle Waggoner, a veteran of the old Carol Burnett show), a three-member panel that includes two board-certified surgeons, a public-relations professional, a group of testimonial-givers portrayed by actors, and an audience.

“Let’s Talk” has commercials specifying that Y-Bron is for “non-organic” impotence, a key point not made by the doctors on the panel, one of whom runs a clinic for sex-related disorders in Los Angeles.

Non-organic--sometimes called psychological--impotence cannot be traced to physical problems like diabetes or the side effects of such medicines as anti-high blood pressure drugs. It often responds to psychotherapy or the well-known “placebo effect,” and that may be the real secret ingredient in most if not all sexual pepper-uppers.

To give credit where credit is due, Y-Bron does not promise instant relief; it takes time. A scientist who was hired by Y-Bron’s public-relations staff to test the product said in an interview that a typical user probably would spend $300 before noting any improvement, if then.

Gary Ballens, the public-relations man on the television show, insisted that the product works and the price is justified because production is “labor intensive.”

Some stimulant-makers are not so restrained in their claims. A pill called Silver Bullet (“a potent formula that’s so advanced it’s virtually foolproof”) purports to be “99% effective” in restoring potency. Offered by an establishment called the Royale Academy of Laboratory Science in Tempe, Ariz., the Silver Bullet comes in two strengths--regular and “sterling.” Efforts to reach Royale Academy were unsuccessful.

In a mass mailing, Silver Bullet is said to offer “90% increase in male hormone levels, reversal of cardiovascular blockages, triple the energy level, physical stamina equivalent to 7,000 calories of energy, erections that last 83% longer, (and) elimination of premature ejaculation.”

Another pill, called Thera, is also given the hard sell.

“Put a tiger in the old boy’s tank,” says the Thera blurb in a catalog. “According to the FDA, we can’t make any extravagant promises. But we can truthfully say that if the ingredients in these fabulous supplements don’t do wonders for his energy, performance and enthusiasm, we can’t imagine what will.”

Neither can the FDA. This federal agency has stated formally that it is “unaware of any data to support the oral or topical use of an over-the-counter aphrodisiac drug product.”