Science

Study: Does Cheaper Viagra Reduce Suicides?

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Transcript:

Heads up, here’s a content warning: today I’m going to talk about sex and suicide, so if either of those things upset you, maybe give this video a skip!

Earlier this year, researchers published a paper in the European Journal of Epidemiology in which they argue that Viagra getting cheaper reduced male suicides in Sweden. I only just noticed because it popped up on Reddit’s science subreddit this week for some reason. Why do these things happen? I have no idea. Also, you’re welcome for me not making a “popping up” “Viagra” joke.

Anyway, it obviously caught my eye, so I read through the study, and let me just say straight up — it’s not the most impressive thing I’ve read. This week. Scientists at University of California and Uppsala University in Sweden looked at how the suicide rate in Sweden changed after the patent for Viagra expired in 2013. Prior to that, it cost about $11.50 a pill in Sweden, and after it cost about $3 a pill.

Allow me to pause for a moment to point out that here in the United States, generic Viagra, known as sildenafil, costs about $40 a pill. Now, post-patent expiration. Because we are FREE, unburdened by the horror of universal healthcare. Or something. Anyway.

The researchers found that once the price of Viagra dropped to a quarter of its initial price in Sweden, suicides dropped too. So that’s it, right? Hard dicks save lives.

Except…okay, you already probably assume that this is a correlation, not causation. Hard dicks may save lives, or maybe some other thing happened that reduced suicides and it was a coincidence. This study does not show cause and effect.

But also, this study about peen hacking may also suffer from p-hacking. I’ve talked about this loads of times in the past, but it involves looking at a bunch of data and picking out only the bits that show an effect, meaning you’re more likely to just be highlighting a coincidence. In this case, the researchers didn’t just find an overall drop in suicides. They found a drop in MALE suicides. But not even JUST male suicides — just men between the ages of 50 and 59. And not JUST men between the ages of 50 and 59, but a drop in suicides in men between the ages of 50 and 59 in the first 18 months after the price drop. Not in women, not in men aged 40-49 or 60 to 69, and after 2016 the effect all but disappears.

The researchers say that the men aged 50-59 are the most important cohort anyway because they had higher rates of suicide and were more likely to get prescriptions for Viagra, but a truly *great* study would have pre-registered their hypothesis before crunching the data. Here’s the difference: let’s say I wanted to do a study on the most common result in the game of Plinko. My hypothesis is that if there are 12 bins, bin seven is going to be the most common result when dropping the ball down the middle because that bin is CLOSE to the middle but not quite exactly in the middle and also because reasons, like the moon’s gravity. If I preregister that hypothesis, you know I didn’t just run 100 Plinko simulations and then say whichever bin won is the most likely result, which is what I actually just did. It’s actually a coincidence that bin 7 was the leader after 117 balls — if we collect more data, you’ll see that the actual most likely bin is 6, the one right in the middle.

So in order to verify the results found in this study on Sweden, we’d have to see similar results in other countries. You may even be able to compare suicide rates between countries that have universal healthcare and those who don’t.

All of this isn’t to say that I think their results are outlandish, because I don’t. I am definitely one of those people who brings up Viagra whenever anyone claims that birth control isn’t real “medicine” and so shouldn’t be covered by insurance (an argument that I’ve seen a lot of over the years). The argument is obviously wrong — birth control helps women regulate their cycles, decreases the pain associated with conditions like endometriosis, and oh yeah it prevents us from getting pregnant, an extremely dangerous condition that can result in death or just 18 or so years of abject misery for those of us who don’t want children AND for the new lifeform that has just been forced into existence.

But that counterargument rarely works because the people making the initial argument don’t actually think of women as “people,” per se, so it’s helpful to say things like “Well then is Viagra real medicine that should be covered by insurance? Why is it so important to make sure men have sex but not important to make sure women don’t get pregnant as a result of sex?”

And I think that counterargument works a little better, because it highlights the hypocrisy of the person making the initial argument and exposes their true feelings about women and sex.

That said, I’ve never loved making that argument because it implies that it’s not actually important healthcare to make sure men can have sex if they want to have sex with a willing partner. And in fact, I think it is. Sex is an important part of our health. Masturbation is as normal and healthy as eating and drinking, and enjoying a sexual relationship with another willing partner is both physically and psychologically beneficial for everyone who has sexual feelings. It goes hand in hand with the benefits we get from intimacy, which isn’t necessarily reliant upon getting and maintaining an erection but it’s understandable that humans link the two. I don’t think it’s a sign of toxic masculinity or what have you if people who are used to getting pleasure from an erect penis want to continue that activity despite aging or diseases that get in the way. 

No one “deserves” sex or intimacy, but if modern medicine and other interventions can help people improve their sexual health, there’s ample evidence to suggest that it will also improve their psychological health. Research has shown that prostate cancer patients can become significantly depressed even though they have very good survival rates. The risk of suicide in prostate cancer patients remains elevated for YEARS after successful treatment thanks in part to lasting side effects like impotence. And it’s not just men — when women experience disorders that negatively impact their sex life, their risk of suicide and depression skyrockets, too.

So, while I’m not sure that cheaper Viagra had a noticeable impact on suicides for men in Sweden, I am sure that being able to access drugs that help people maintain their usual desired sex life results in a better quality of life for everyone. And as silly as it is that there are insurance companies that would cover Viagra but not oral birth control, it’s worth noting that both of those things are net positives for the people taking them. Humans are happier when they can enjoy sex and intimacy without pain or humiliation. I mean, unless you’re into that. I’m not here to kink shame.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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