Pfizer Inc. can't do much to fix the reeling U.S. economy. It can't rescue Wall Street, or revive the stock markets, or replenish retirement savings that have been laid to waste.
But the pharmaceutical giant is launching a novel program that could ease the financial burden on out-of-work Americans: It's making sex more affordable.
Pfizer announced yesterday that it will offer up to a year of free medication, including access to its popular erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra, to unemployed workers who have lost their health insurance.
More than 70 drugs are available under the company's plan, including Lipitor, which controls cholesterol, and painkiller Celebrex. To be eligible, people must have already been taking a Pfizer medication for at least three months before they were laid off.
The move is part of a burgeoning phenomenon known as the corporate giveback, in which companies are offering guarantees as a means of building loyalty and attracting recession-wary consumers.
General Motors unit Saturn has pledged to shoulder vehicle payments for nine months for buyers who are suddenly out of work. Hyundai is allowing customers to return leased vehicles, with no fee, while JetBlue Airways Corp. has promised to refund airfare for anyone who has lost their job after purchasing a ticket.
Maryland-based Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. has even said it will refund the price of a man's suit - and let the customer keep it - if his job is eliminated before July.
"The non-cynical view is they're just trying to help out in a time of need," Les Funtleyder, a health industry analyst at Miller Tabak LLC, said of the Pfizer initiative. "The less charitable view is it's a bit of a marketing ploy. It's positive PR, and possibly a good direct-marketing tool."
The drug giveaway will no doubt generate some goodwill with both the public and Washington, no small feat in an industry that is more accustomed to fending off criticism.
The move could also help Pfizer retain customers who might otherwise have abandoned its drugs when their health coverage expired. The risk of the uninsured discontinuing their medications is that they may defect to a rival once they re-enter the work force and get insurance again.
Pfizer said it hatched the plan only a month ago as a way to lend a hand during the worst economic crisis in a generation. "We thought there must be some way we could help recently unemployed people who are taking Pfizer medicines to continue treatment during these challenging economic times," explained Jorge Puente, a regional president.
The economic downturn has placed considerable strain on the U.S. health care system. Approximately 46 million Americans lack medical coverage, and 4.1 million people lost employer-sponsored health insurance last year alone, according to a study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University.
Pfizer says the ranks of the uninsured will swell by 1.1 million for each percentage rise in U.S. unemployment, which is now at its highest level in 25 years. Meanwhile, prescription drug use fell by more than 1 per cent in 2008, the first time it has dropped in a decade.
President Barack Obama has vowed to fix the health care system, and has been working to cut spending by $2-trillion (U.S.) over a 10-year period to make health care less expensive, an effort that could eat into the industry's profit.
Mr. Funtleyder suggested that Pfizer's drug giveaway certainly won't hurt its relations with Washington at this delicate time for the industry.
Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry's spending on lobbying grew by 36 per cent in the first quarter, to $47.4-million. Pfizer's portion more than doubled to $6.1-million.
The company did not reveal how many people it expects to take advantage of its new program, but analysts doubt that the numbers will be high enough to saddle Pfizer with significant costs.