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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Viagra Lets Town On Island Prosper In Puerto Rico
A Sex-Pill Plant Transforms A Village Once Known For Pineapples
By Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Staff Writer
December 19, 2004
BARCELONETA, Puerto Rico -- Welcome to the town Viagra built.
Until just a few years ago, this village on the Atlantic Ocean about an hour west of San Juan was best known for its verdant pineapple plantations.
Today, it's all about the little blue pill made at the local Pfizer plant -- touted as a miracle drug for some men, but also performing economic miracles for a once-impoverished town.
From a sprawling, nondescript factory on the edge of town flows all the Viagra that Pfizer produces for North America for men who suffer from impotence.
And now, in fields where laborers once did the backbreaking work of harvesting tangy fruit, the first new subdivisions in a generation are sprouting. A mall, anchored by the high-end clothier Brooks Brothers, draws shoppers from throughout Puerto Rico.
Even the town's dowdy main street, Highway 2, is seeing its first new office buildings in years.
Since 1998, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Viagra, the drug's popularity has helped pump $60 million a year into the local economy, transforming the seaside town in head-spinning fashion.
Barceloneta has come to be known as "Ciudad Viagra."
"While the world marveled about the invention of a drug to help men, we have been impressed at what it has done for us," said Sol Luis Fontanez, Barceloneta's mayor. "The Pfizer Company has been a great partner for us. It's a partnership we want to last a long time."
The steel industry put Pittsburgh on the map. Automobiles did the same for Detroit. And beer made Milwaukee famous.
Can the sex-pill industry have the same potency for this community of 22,000 residents?
Those who live here say the town has never before received such a powerful economic boost. They don't just talk about moving up in the world -- many are actually finding jobs that pay well and fulfilling a lifelong dream of owning their own home.
"Everyone on the island knows this is where Viagra comes from," said Yolanda Maisonet, who runs a small outdoor concession stand a few hundred feet from Pfizer's plant.
"Viagra has not only changed the way this town looks, it has helped raise the spirits of thousands of Puerto Ricans, most of whom used to work in the fields," Maisonet, 51, explained one morning while selling snacks to Pfizer employees.
"That little pill has worked its magic here. I have my own business now, and that's what is important to me."
A Pfizer worker buying a cup of coffee at Maisonet's stand one morning said that when he tells family on the U.S. mainland that he makes Viagra, a short burst of laughter is usually the response.
"They don't laugh when I tell them I make twice as much as they do," he explained, noting that wages at the plant begin at about $15 an hour.
Jose Perez, 54, credits Pfizer with helping him move his wife and children from a cramped wood-frame home into a spacious, three-bedroom concrete house.
Barceloneta now boasts one of the biggest shopping centers in Puerto Rico, he said, and that didn't get built because the town's future is gloomy.
"The company has given me a chance for a career," said Perez, who supervises a warehouse. "This town has a bright future so long as we can keep this plant busy."
Jaws drop, he said, when he tells curious friends and family members that his employer offers its employees access to free Pfizer medication so long as they have a doctor's prescription.
When the FDA approved Viagra, it was hailed as revolutionary: The diamond-shaped blue pill became the first drug on the market to treat men's erectile dysfunction. Shortly thereafter, the prescription drug was being advertised directly to U.S. consumers, a pitch that helped drive demand through the roof.
Viagra sales exceed $1 billion a year, and its latest multimillion-dollar television advertising campaign features a middle-aged man with devilish blue horns protruding from his head -- marketing that has helped the drug maintain high sales.
Carlos del Rio, a Puerto Rico-based vice president for Pfizer, said most people don't know how much the company has done in Barceloneta.
It helped start a regional fire department, helped construct a modern sewer system, provided tutors for the local schools and kicked in millions to the city in taxes.
About 60 percent of Pfizer's work force comes from within just a few miles of the plant.
But, he said, he doesn't want to credit only one drug with Barceloneta's good times.
"I don't think you can lay the entire thing on Viagra," del Rio said. "We make the antidepressant Zoloft here as well, and a few other drugs."
Still, no other drug has become the kind of cultural icon that Viagra has -- even sponsoring a NASCAR racing team. Pfizer officials say Viagra has helped improve the sex lives of 16 million men.
In fact, they say, nine Viagra tablets are dispensed every second worldwide. And profit margins per pill are in the neighborhood of 90 percent, according to a Forbes magazine report.
Add Zoloft to Barceloneta's boom times, and you have a colorful cocktail of pills with a strong U.S. appeal: one pill for sex, the other for happiness.
4 DRUG MAKERS IN AREA
Barceloneta was founded in the late 1800s by a Spaniard who named it after the city of Barcelona, Spain. For hundreds of years, it was little more than an expanse of fields used mostly for grazing cattle and farming.
The world's largest drug maker arrived here in the 1970s, aided in part by Puerto Rico's favorable tax structure.
Since then three smaller companies -- Bristol-Myers Squibb, Abbott and Merck -- have each built facilities here.
In all, these drug companies employ about 8,000 people, most of them Pfizer workers. The companies contribute about half of Barceloneta's $24 million annual budget.
Throughout the island, pharmaceutical companies contributed 11 percent of Puerto Rico's gross domestic product 20 years ago. This year, that figure will hit about 25 percent. Meanwhile, employment during the same period jumped from 11,000 to more than 30,000 today.
Largely on the strength of its industry-leading drugs, many of them made here, Pfizer reported a balance sheet that was the envy of U.S. drug companies. Last month officials told Wall Street that year-end earnings are expected to be 20 percent higher than in 2003.
But the big question being asked around here is whether such unprecedented growth can last.
No one knows.
Some fret that Viagra is no longer the only drug of its kind on the market. The drugs Levitra and Cialis are two of Viagra's major rivals in the $2 billion-a-year so-called "party-medication" industry.
But the outlook for erectile-dysfunction drugs remains hot. The federal National Institutes of Health says as many as 30 million men 40 and older face some degree of impotence problems. That's more than half the men in that age group, the agency said.
Jaime Albors, who oversees Pfizer's Barceloneta plant, said the patent on Viagra will last only a few more years. There's no telling what will happen once generic versions hit the marketplace.
"All drugs have a life cycle," said Albors, who grew up in Puerto Rico. "This plant is a high-production facility. As to the questions about the future, we have to leave that up to the marketplace."
No one wants to return to the pineapple fields, explains Marie Cruz, a 30-year-old single mother who has lived here for 10 years and works at a local restaurant.
Agricultural jobs just won't sustain the better standard of living that people have seen since Viagra hit the market, she said: "People around here have gotten used to spending money."