Region buys most packs of condoms 65 U.S. markets were surveyed

December 01, 1992|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Judging by retail sales figures on condoms, area residents may be getting the word about safe sex.

A recent study by a New York-based marketing organization showed that the Baltimore-Washington area has the highest level of condom purchases in the country.

"It's certainly a sign the message [on condom use] is getting through," said Irwin Rothenberg, administrator of education for the Health Education and Resource Organization, an AIDS education and service organization serving Baltimore.

"It's wonderful. I'm delighted," said John Lewis, the Baltimore City Health Department's assistant commissioner for preventive medicine and epidemiology.

Though they have no ready explanation for why people buy more condoms here than anywhere else, health professionals, condom manufacturers and retailers point to three possible reasons:

* Intensive campaigns by public and private health groups to raise awareness that condoms can prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies.

* Free distribution programs that have promoted the use of condoms.

* Recent decisions by leading area retailers to move condoms out from behind prescription counters.

The study by Towne-Oller & Associates, first reported in last week's Wall Street Journal, found that the Baltimore-Washington area had the highest level of condom purchases of 65 markets surveyed nationwide.

Consumers in the Baltimore-Washington area -- defined as extending from Scranton, Pa., to Fredericksburg, Va. -- bought 75 percent more packages of condoms than the national average during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, according to the survey. The area with the next highest purchase level was Boston, where consumers bought 50 percent more than the national average.

What's more, condom purchases in the Baltimore-Washington area increased by 15 percent over last year, three times the national average, the study found.

The level reflects the purchase of 2.5 million packages of condoms in an area of about 9 million people, according to Gary Andrechak, marketing analyst for New York-based Towne-Oller, which regularly reports on sales of health and beauty industry products. The survey did not measure how many condoms were in each package, he added, nor did it attempt to determine why purchases were higher in one area than another.

But those involved in local efforts to promote safe-sex say the numbers may well reflect the result of stepped-up educational campaigns, which themselves are the result of explosive rates of HIV infection.

Mr. Rothenberg of the Health Education and Resource Organization estimated that there are as many as 60 area organizations involved in educating people about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"There's more AIDS education here than any other areas of the country with the exception of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles," he said.

At the same time, Mr. Rothenberg said, the area has been far more accepting of efforts to promote condom use than more conservative regions.

Large-scale free distribution programs may also be contributing to the high purchase level by encouraging people to develop the habit of using condoms, officials said.

"People who are more used to using condoms tend to purchase them," said Andy Hannon, an administrator with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which gives out 3 million condoms a year at 460 sites throughout the state.

Although many of the locations are "screaming for condoms," Mr. Hannon finds figures on the sales levels particularly meaningful. "When people purchase things, it reflects that they value them," he said.

And the purchase of condoms has been made more convenient -- and perhaps less embarrassing -- at Giant Discount Drug Stores and Rite Aid, which in the last several months have moved condoms from behind the prescription counters and onto display racks in the general merchandise area.

Together, the two chains have several hundred outlets in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Eugene Freed, vice president of sales and marketing of Safetex, a Virginia-based condom maker, says such moves "definitely help" the sale of condoms. "The white-jacketed pharmacist is definitely a turnoff," he said, adding that there is still an unfortunate stigma about buying condoms.

"Now you can pick up a box and look at it and read it. It makes people more comfortable," added Kimberly Mullaney, an education specialist with Planned Parenthood of Maryland.

Area condom sales may get another jolt later this month, when condoms made by Umoja Sasa, a fledging company that targets African-Americans, are scheduled to be carried at several area Ames department store outlets. Company founder and president Edwin Avent, who previously has sold his product to the state, sees a niche market for a moderately priced condom packaged with Afro-centric images and promoted through posters and T-shirts.

"The only thing keeping us from being as aggressive as we'd like to is raising more capital," he said.

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