"All Condoms primary location at Customer Service" reads a small sign surrounded by empty shelves that once held condoms, pregnancy tests, and other important sexual health products at the Safeway on Potrero Avenue.
Because of concerns about theft, the condoms now sit among the Nicorette and razors in a row of glass cases near Customer Service, amid the chaos of hurried shoppers headed to and fro. Although Safeway's recent condom lock-up may have reduced theft, it has also reduced accessibility, and may have deterred customers from buying a product crucial for the prevention of pregnancy and STD's.
The increased security measures are not contained to the Potrero store, or even San Francisco's Safeways. "There are a number of products (Oil of Olay for example) that we've had to secure under lock and key because of theft," Susan M. Houghton, Safeway's Northern California spokesperson tells the Guardian. "It varies by store and city, but yes, condoms were recently added — due to theft."
Houghton would not go into any further detail about when or why the condoms were locked, but the move has raised concerns by public health advocates.
"We fully understand the position that Safeway is in, but we really would advocate for people having pregnancy tests, condoms — anything that really helps people manage their lives better — to be much more accessible," Adrienne Verrilli, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood in San Francisco tells the Guardian. "Accessibility is often key, especially for young people."
Kyriell Noon, executive director of San Francisco's STOP AIDS project, says he believes locked cases could deter people from buying condoms, "especially for young people who are shy or could be embarrassed about asking for help...Condoms should be as easy for people to access as any other item available for purchase on the market. When there are barriers between people and condoms, I think many people will shrug and give up. But if they're easy to access there's no excuse to not use them."
STOP AIDS knows the importance of condoms in the prevention of HIV, and distributes free condoms to 90 locations throughout San Francisco.
Safeway representatives and staff members refused to say which Safeways have moved condoms behind glass, but a visit to four San Francisco Safeways found condoms locked in cases at each of them, some even locked behind the Customer Service counter.
At the Safeway at Church and Market streets, we found that there is often a line at Customer Service, which customers must now wait in to purchase condoms. The process of acquiring condoms requires requesting the case be unlocked, making a selection under the watchful eye of an employee, and having the employee remove it from the case and walk it back to Customer Service where it can be purchased. Ten minutes had passed before I was leaving with my $8.99 12-pack of Trojan ENZ.
This challenge could affect teenagers more than adults due to embarrassment, hassle, or the now public process of choosing and purchasing condoms at Safeway. "It puts young people in a very awkward situation," says Leah LaCroix, president of the San Francisco Youth Commission. LaCroix says she does not believe condoms should be locked up, even if it means a company loses profits.
"I think public safety is more important than that," she tells the Guardian. LaCroix and the rest of the Youth Commission are currently urging the San Francisco Unified School District, "to reevaluate and come up with a new curriculum for health education," she said. "I'm sure safe sex will be a component of their new curriculum."
A 2009 Center for Disease Control survey found that 43.5 percent of high school students did not use a condom during sex, and 85.6 percent did not use birth control pills the last time they had sex, making sex education and birth control availability increasingly vital.