The news that Viagra can cause blindness was a body blow for men who use it as a cure for erectile dysfunction. All my baby-boomer friends took the news seriously.
There have been only 50 cases of blindness, but it is enough to make the FDA put warnings on the pill.
The first known case of Viagra blindness was in Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
The hero, Robert Jordan (played by Gary Cooper in the movie), shares his sleeping bag with Maria (Ingrid Bergman). It was the greatest love scene in modern fiction. When it was concluded, Robert Jordan asked, "Did thee feel the earth move?"
Maria said, "It moved for me."
Then Robert Jordan said, "Oh, my God, I can't see."
Maria said, "You're in Spain and blind with love."
"I don't know what moved the earth for me, love or Viagra."
What Hemingway was saying is that you take your chances when you share a sleeping bag.
Nonetheless, the FDA believes that if you're going to take Viagra for any reason, you should be warned on the label and preferably have a seeing-eye dog handy.
Pfizer, the company that makes the medicine, denies its product is dangerous -- though not because Viagra is a billion-dollar business. It says erectile dysfunction is one of the main causes of strife in the world. Therefore, Pfizer is saving mankind.
The people who dispute this say it's just "pillow talk."
The cases reported so far have to do with high blood pressure, which causes vision loss. The symptoms are aggravated by victims who consider themselves so lucky the earth moved that they have a heart attack. And others say it's all in the mind.
People have suggested that Pfizer and other companies, such as Eli Lilly, which makes Cialis, and GlaxoSmithKline, which sells Levitra, donate half their profits to Recording for the Blind.
Obviously, this is going to cause serious problems in sexual relationships. If someone over 40 is afraid to use the pill, a woman of any age will believe something is wrong with him. The male has always been the hunter and the female has always been the hunted . . . well, not all the time, but enough to make the female wonder if the male isn't attracted to her.
The question is, what can we do about it?
The odds are against users damaging their optic nerve, and the warning on the bottle is to protect the FDA just in case.
Every medicine has a downside, but the question is whether the upside it gives you is worth it.
"It hasn't come to this yet," a scientist told me, "but they should also put on the bottle, 'If Viagra doesn't cause blindness, smoking will kill you.' "
He also said, "If you want to avoid blindness, do what the White House suggests and just say no."
"On the other hand," he asked me, "if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does the earth move?"
"What does that have to do with erectile dysfunction?" I asked.
He replied, "Read my book."
(c) 2005, Tribune Media Services