PART 2: Time to Ask Questions

If you own a television, the scene I'm about to describe is probably familiar to you: A commercial comes on for some new prescription drug, a panacea with some vaguely descriptive name like Obliviate or Reducto. Actually, those are the names of magic spells in Harry Potter, but you get the idea. These TV commercials usually feature a group of men camping in the woods or a bunch of women gossiping over candy-colored cocktails. There's no clear indication of what ails them, and for the viewer sitting at home, you can only guess what Obliviate or Reducto might do. But there's no mistaking how these drugs are going to make you feel, which is to say fucking awesome. These TV spots mostly end with a voice saying, "Ask your doctor if Obliviate is right for you." But the subtext is clear: Of course it's right for you.

Merck & Co., the makers of Propecia, spent $60 million on direct-to-consumer advertising in 1998 and doubled down the following year. It seemed like a lot of money to spend selling something that (a) worked for most people and (b) had such an obvious built-in audience. But what did I know? Whatever the wizards at Merck were doing, it clearly worked. In 2003, annual sales of Propecia hit $239 million, and that number steadily climbed to $447 million in 2010. I looked around at my friends: At least some of those sales had to be coming from them, right? I mean, we were the prime demographic—vain dudes with disposable income and so-so genetics. Yet no one would admit to being on the sauce. While we could talk openly and easily about our ailing 401(k)s (sometimes even while shopping together!), talking about hair loss and how to stem it seemed to cross some invisible bro-code line.

I didn't ask many questions before getting my first prescription for Propecia, but I'm man enough to admit that eight years later I was spooked. And so I called a doctor (a few, actually) and asked the burning questions. I'd never suffered a single sexual side effect from the drug. Was I in the clear? Not necessarily. This was definitely a good sign, though side effects could develop later, one doctor said. Another told me that the human body was good at coming up with coping mechanisms; if Propecia was causing any kind of disruptions—erectile or otherwise--my body was clearly already compensating in other ways. But what would happen if I stopped taking the drug, I wanted to know. Would my hair fall out immediately? There was no hard data, but I'd probably lose all of the Propecia-fueled hair within the year. Oy. The thought made me shudder. I imagined running into acquaintances 12 months from now and watching them try to hide their horror—no doubt reflected back at them in my newly bald pate.

I dug further and what I found only produced more questions. It turns out Propecia was itself a happy accident—the chemical ingredient, finasteride, was originally tested to treat the prostate, but scientists discovered that in lower doses it also regrew hair. I like to imagine two Orville Redenbacher types in lab coats somewhere high-fiving each other over this surprise discovery, though I'm sure it didn't happen that way. One doctor admitted she wasn't exactly sure how the drug worked. I learned other surprising things. Namely, pregnant women aren't even allowed to touch Propecia—literally, they can't let it come in contact with their skin. (You don't want to know what too much finasteride can do to an unborn male fetus.)

Maybe I was overreacting. I hadn't weathered a single side effect. And so, I vowed to put the whole thing out of my mind, which proved harder than I expected. I was watching TV one night when I saw a commercial for a potential lawsuit against Merck, the makers of Propecia. The Manhattan law firm of Lynch Daskal Emery was looking for men who suffered lingering side effects from the drug to take on the pharmaceutical Goliath. I went online and fell down the rabbit hole that is Propeciahelp.com, a message board for men adversely affected by the drug. Man, that was a doozy. Some of these guys were on hormone therapy, claiming finasteride permanently altered their testosterone levels.

Suddenly a new question was working its way to the surface: Was I so vain that I'd tempt fate?