Mexican Pharmacist's Empire Growing


Monday, August 15th 2005, 9:33 am
By: News On 6


MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Victor Gonzalez sells cheap medicine and health care to Mexico's poor, and it has made him very rich.

In just eight years, his chain of Farmacias Similares, or Similar Pharmacies, has grown from a single store in Mexico City to 3,239 across Mexico and is spreading throughout Central America as well as Argentina, Ecuador and Chile. A pharmacy opened in the Peruvian capital of Lima on July 29, and Colombia is next.

His catchy advertising _ a cartoon doctor and an army of scantily clad models _ has made the 58-year-old Gonzalez a household name. His slogan is ``The Same, Only Cheaper.''

Now the recovering alcoholic and self-professed womanizer wants to translate his popularity into a run for president, though the law is against him, as is most conventional wisdom.

Gonzalez refuses to divulge his net worth, joking in an interview, ``If I tell you, they'll come kidnap me.'' But his eight companies, manufacturing, transporting or selling pharmaceuticals, generated around $400 million in sales last year. His group claims to control one-quarter of Mexico's $9 billion drug industry.

Gonzalez sells Mexican-made generic medicines at prices up to 80 percent lower than those of brand-name prescription drugs.

Bayer Corp.'s Cipro, which became famous as an antidote during the post-9/11 anthrax scare, is a potent antibiotic commonly prescribed here for everything from stomach ailments to respiratory infections. It costs $24 to $28 for a box of eight in regular pharmacies. The Farmacias Similares equivalent costs as little as $4.

Other staples _ from aspirin to anti-flu tablets, condoms to calcium chews _ cost about half as much.

Gonzalez said his pharmacies in the U.S.-Mexico border cities of Juarez and Tijuana are among his most successful, frequented by Americans in search of cheaper medications.

He also subsidizes more than 2,000 clinics where doctors see patients for as little as 20 pesos ($1.80) a visit. Many of his pharmacies are just next door. Gonzalez says the clinics see 1.7 million patients clinics a month.

``If you've helped so many people, given them health care and quality medical attention and never asked for anything in return, the poor really love you,'' Gonzalez said.

The youngest of five children, Gonzalez started as a warehouse worker at Farmacias Finex, his family's drugstore chain. He says that ``commercial differences'' with his brother Javier forced him to leave for another firm, Laboratorios Best, which produced generic drugs for the government.

Then he went independent with Farmacias Similares, eliminating the government middle man by sell medicines directly to consumers.

He calls it ``Simi-socialism,'' which he defines as ``an economic, political and social theory that takes the best of socialism and the best of capitalism and is based on truth, honesty and productivity.''

``I want to defend the poor by helping those who have money to be honest, to produce more and pay taxes honestly so the state has the resources it needs.''

It's his pitch for next year's presidential election.

Championing universal health care, improved education and a tougher tax code, he has visited 43 cities as part of the ``Tour For a Better Country.''

Gonzalez's problem is, he's up against major and long-entrenched political parties, and Mexicans anyway are barred from running for president without a party's endorsement.

``There's no one in his company who is going to say 'You're out of your mind,''' says political analyst Oscar Aguilar.

``He's like a pharmaceutical Ross Perot, but he doesn't have as much money and it's illegal for him to run with no party,'' said Aguilar.

Gonzalez has lobbied Congress to change the law, while another independent, former Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda, petitioned the Supreme Court for the right to run for the presidency. But on Monday the judges rebuffed the challenge.

Critics charge there's little proof that Farmacias Similares drugs are true generics. Rosario D'Alessio, of the Pan-American Health Organization in Washington, said Mexican authorities usually perform the necessary equivalency testing, but the results are often not available to consumers.

``The fact that they are called Farmacias Similares doesn't mean what they sell has the same effect,'' D'Alessio said.

Gonzalez counters that ``people don't buy what doesn't work.''

``We spend millions on testing, but what's really real is ... every day more and more people are buying our products.''

Helping to attract customers are the ``Simi Chicas,'' hundreds of scantily clad women who appear on television, calendars and at public events.

Gonzalez, who says he has dated up to six women at once, sees the Simi Chicas as ``the cherry on top'' of his cheap medicines.

For the more family-minded, there's ``Dr. Simi,'' a beaming, lab-coated cartoon character who appears on billboards and in newspaper advertisements and has his own comic book.

Clerks dressed as 7-foot-tall Dr. Simis dance outside pharmacies and appear in TV commercials.

``Now that I'm a politician,'' Gonzalez says, ``he introduces me and says, 'Look everyone! This is my father.'''

In case he doesn't get to Los Pinos, the Mexican executive mansion, Gonzalez is building a luxury ``Simi House'' in Cancun.

After the election, he says, ``I'll be in Los Pinos _ or at the beach.''