Washington, D.C., public health students work to free condoms.
Today, because of the students' activism, D.C. residents can visit any CVS drug store and buy often lifesaving condoms without the sometime embarrassing step of asking for help. After reaping success in the nation's capital, the Save Lives: Free the Condoms Coalition is now expanding and recruiting supporters from New York City to Los Angeles, amplifying their message to CVS headquarters: create a nationwide policy that CVS drug stores keep condoms unlocked and accessible.
"Middle schoolers and high schoolers are increasingly having intercourse and they're also the ones most embarrassed to buy condoms," said Noraine Buttar, an organizer with the coalition and public health student at George Washington University. "And when we have barriers to condoms, many people won't use them."
The seeds of the campaign began in 2006 with Caroline Sparks, PhD, MA, director of the university's health promotion program and associate professor of prevention and community health, who discussed the condom problem with students taking her new advocacy and organizing class. In response, Buttar and fellow students conducted a survey of D.C. CVS stores in 2006 as a class project, finding that 22 out of 50 stores were locking up condoms because of theft concerns, and those 22 stores were all in primarily minority neighborhoods home to the city's highest HIV/AIDS rates.
In stores that locked up condoms, customers would have to find and ask a salesperson for help or push a button to send an announcement over the store intercom. The survey findings, along with statistics showing Washington, D.C., led the nation in HIV/AIDS cases, propelled the students into action, contacting CVS stores, talking with the district manager, launching a media campaign and eventually bringing their complaints to CVS' corporate headquarters. The work led to success: CVS agreed to unlock condom supplies in D.C.
"We need to pay attention to the fact that policy changes are equivalent to behavior outcomes," Sparks said. "The actual intervention is the organizing ... and the outcome is the policy change."
The road to success in D.C. wasn't easy, Buttar said. CVS officials would not provide students with data on condom theft rates, and once news of the campaign hit local newspapers, local CVS managers stopped talking to students at all, Buttar said. A year after the initial success, coalition members resurveyed D.C. CVS stores and found one store still locking its condoms. In response, organizers held a protest during 2007's World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, forcing the store to unlock its condoms.
Today, the coalition, which now operates under the auspices of the Metropolitan Washington Public Health Association, is reaching out to public health organizations in Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles. Over the course of the D.C. campaign, CVS officials had said D.C. stores were an anomaly, and that stores in other areas keep condoms unlocked. But after more surveys, Buttar said, the coalition found otherwise. A recent survey in Brooklyn, N.Y., found almost half of CVS locations were locking up condoms, she said.
Mike DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman, told The Nation's Health that about 5 percent of the chain's more than 6,000 stores lock up condoms and that "decision is based on whether shoplifting is to such a degree that they're becoming unavailable for customers to purchase." DeAngelis said D.C. locations that still lock up some condoms also have smaller, unsecured condom displays or a new "pusher" fixture, in which a customer pushes a lever and is able to retrieve one box at a time.
Buttar said organizers continue to pressure CVS to create a nationwide policy that stores do not lock up condoms, and noted that if alternative display methods are alleviating theft concerns, then condoms should go unlocked across the country.
"Why create barriers to something that helps stop the rate of AIDS?" Buttar asked.
For more information or to view a recent coalition public service announcement, visit www.savelives freethecondoms.org.
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|Title Annotation:||STUDENT FOCUS: News of interest to students in public health|
|Publication:||The Nation's Health|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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