Bob Dole was supposed to be the face of Viagra. But there are reports that much younger men are popping the famous blue pill and similar meds.

A recent study shows that while most users of Viagra (search) are still over 56, an increasing number of men under 55 are using the erectile dysfunction drug — leading some to suggest that the medication is increasingly being used as a chemical aphrodisiac

"The study of more than 5 million insured adults from 1998 to 2002 found that the fastest-growing segments of users was men 18 to 55. The number of men 18 to 45 using the drug tripled during this time," said Tom Delate, author of the Express Scripts study reported in the International Journal of Impotence Research (search) in August. "It looks like it's for recreation or enhancement."

And with two newer ED drugs on the market — Cialis and Levitra — abuse of this type of medication may rise, Delate said.

Experts say there are several likely reasons for the study's numbers, including experimentation, performance anxiety and use of the drug to combat the sexual effects of alcohol and so-called club drugs.

But Viagra manufacturer Pfizer takes issue with the suggestion that the pill is being used for anything other than its intended purpose.

"There are limitations on the data. They didn't have access to medical records — they don't know the reasons [why people were using it]. You can assume the doctor presumed some degree of erectile dysfunction," said Pfizer spokesman Daniel Watts. "They grouped 18-45 — that's a big span. In the mid-30s to mid-40s, it may be valid in some cases. We don't have a good sense [from the study] of how young these men are."

Although Watts said performance anxiety is not a sufficient reason for a doctor to prescribe ED medication, some experts said physicians are doing just that.

"In the past, men with performance anxiety were told to get counseling, but a lot of men are looking for a quick fix," said Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, author of "The Viagra Myth." (search)

Morgentaler, a Harvard professor, also pointed out that some young men may actually have a medical need for ED drugs.

"There is a small fairly young age group where we have seen an increase in use. A significant number of those men may be getting prescriptions for legitimate medical reasons. There's a misconception that men under 40 don't suffer from erectile dysfunction."

Meanwhile, a whole other group of men may be obtaining ED pills illegally from the street and the Internet, where Viagra is the No. 1 spam word, according to Watts.

The Boston Herald recently reported that in Beantown, young partygoers use "sextasy" (what they call Viagra) as an antidote to the "wilting" effects of alcohol and drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamine. There is also said to be a similar scene in New York. And Morgentaler said there is concern about recreational ED drug use among gay men in particular.

"We certainly hear anecdotal stories where it seems quite common," Morgentaler said. "There's little doubt that it's being used by young men in hopes of enhancing sexual experience."

Dr. Bonnie Jacobson, a psychologist who specializes in sexuality, said the phenomenon has a lot to do with America's pill-popping culture.

"The current generation is very familiar with using any sort of chemical to enhance an experience," she said. "Any time you're with a new partner it wouldn't be uncommon to have thoughts like, 'Am I going to be OK as a lover?' Viagra is an insurance policy, they think."

But here's the irony: ED drugs will do nothing physically to enhance the erection of a young, healthy, normal man, except maybe make him believe that he is more sexually charged, Morgentaler said.

"Guys who are 17, 18, don't know what Viagra does for them. All they know is it's supposed to be a sexual enhancer. But if a man believes Viagra does something for him, it might."

Still, there are some dangers to using ED meds. In the case of Viagra, combining the drug with nitrates, used to treat heart disease, could be fatal. Headache, flushing, nasal congestion, heartburn, aches and pains are also possible. And Watts warned that it certainly shouldn't be combined with "poppers" or club drugs.

Jacobson said there's also a psychological backlash to using ED drugs unnecessarily.

"When you can't really hang in there and work through your anxiety, it makes you feel less empowered," she said.

"The Shy Single" author added that societal pressure to perform sexually could also lead men to seek chemical aid.

"I had a patient who felt he was constantly being test-driven by women. But everybody feels test-driven. With 'Sex and the City,' Jimmy Choo high heels, People magazine, Jennifer Lopez (search), the pressure on the outside at this moment is very extreme. Everyone feels like it's so hard to keep up."

While he certainly doesn't approve of recreational ED drug use, Morgentaler said the blue pill is just the latest in a long line of questionable aphrodisiacs.

"Guys have been using rhinoceros horn, Spanish fly for centuries — this is the latest version."