Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (US), January 2, 2007

Some pharmacies locking up their condoms

Move inspired by increased shoplifting; public health advocates worry about increased HIV, pregnancies

By Bob Purvis

If you wanted to buy condoms 30 years ago, you had to bear the embarrassment of asking a pharmacist to fetch them from beneath the counter.

Now with thieves wiping out the entire stock of prophylactics in some stores, more retailers are putting them back out of reach - and, in some cases, are even locking them up.

Many convenience stores in Milwaukee have again placed condoms behind the counter to keep shoplifters from pocketing them, and some major pharmacy chains have placed them in locked glass cases along with other frequently stolen goods such as costly replacement razor blades.

The difference, some advocates say, is that making it more inconvenient to buy razor blades is not a matter of public health.

"We are certainly concerned about the availability of condoms in stores," said Eric Ostermann, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Health Association.

By preventing the exchange of body fluids during sexual intercourse, condoms significantly reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

"We'd hope they would not present any obstacles to getting their product in the community," Ostermann said.

Brad Clifford, a 27-year-old Milwaukee man, said he was surprised to find condoms locked behind a glass door in the pharmacy at the Jewel-Osco at 1100 E. Garfield Ave.

After finally finding a store employee with a key to the case, the employee watched over Clifford's shoulder as he nervously made his selection.

"There are a lot of them, and I am trying to figure out what to get and he's just standing there," Clifford said. "I just decided to get the family pack so I wouldn't have to go through that again."

The major concern is that unlike Clifford, many would-be condom users will skip the hassle and embarrassment and risk having unprotected sex, said Joanne Kennedy Coffman, director of patient services for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.

"I have a problem with them keeping condoms locked up because it's creating a barrier," Coffman said. "Instead of being humiliated or embarrassed, I am just thinking they will have sex without them."

Coffman said the benefit of condoms to public health should trump a store's interest in maintaining profit margins.

"It's a very sensitive subject buying condoms. . . . Asking for razor blades or Nicorette is one thing, but admitting that you're having sex is another," Coffman said.

Back to the future

In many ways, seeing condoms locked up or placed behind the counter is a return to the days before the sexual revolution of the late 1960s.

Before a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut, birth control was illegal in some states. The decision found the law unconstitutional, but it extended the legal access only to married couples.

Not until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a Massachusetts case, did it become legal for unmarried people to buy condoms. Wisconsin updated its state statutes in 1976 to comply with that Supreme Court ruling but retained a ban on commercial display or advertising of birth control devices. Only a 1977 Supreme Court ruling finally declared those provisions unconstitutional.

In the '80s, with the emergence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, condom use and promotion by public health agencies soared.

So why put them back behind the counter?

Jewel-Osco representatives did not return calls or e-mails about their decision to lock up the condoms, but other retailers said that thieves who repeatedly cleaned out a store's entire condom inventory forced some precautions.

"The Osco stores we acquired, many of them lock a lot of their merchandise - including condoms," said Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, the nation's largest pharmacy operator that acquired 13 free-standing Osco drugstores in metro Milwaukee in early 2006.

DeAngelis said the CVS stores will be remodeled starting at the end of this month and that they'll find other ways to deter condom theft

"Our policy is not to lock up the condoms," DeAngelis said. "Our loss-prevention measures are designed to protect product but still keep maximum access for customers."

DeAngelis said that in stores where the thefts persist, special racks will be installed that limit the number of condoms that can be taken at a time and that make a loud clicking sound as condoms are dispensed.

"It's a constantly evolving process in creating these fixtures and solutions that prevent inventory loss while keeping products accessible to customers," DeAngelis said.

Eyes on the prizes

Other stores, such as Walgreens, mostly keep condoms in a highly visible area in the store where thieves would be more concerned about employees catching them in the act of stealing. Several Walgreens that had placed condoms behind their counters have since been instructed to return them to the sales floor, said Carol Hively, corporate spokeswoman for the pharmacy chain, based in Deerfield, Ill.

"It's our policy not to lock up condoms," Hively said. "Shrink can vary from store to store, but in general it is in the interest of public good and safety to keep the condoms unlocked."

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