By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; B01
High school students and college-age adults have been complaining to District officials that the free condoms the city has been offering are not of good enough quality and are too small and that getting them from school nurses is "just like asking grandma or auntie."
So D.C. officials have decided to stock up on Trojan condoms, including the company's super-size Magnum variety, and they have begun to authorize teachers or counselors, preferably male, to distribute condoms to students if the teachers complete a 30-minute online training course called "WrapMC" -- for Master of Condoms.
"If people get what they don't want, they are just going to trash them," said T. Squalls, 30, who attends the University of the District of Columbia. "So why not spend a few extra dollars and get what people want?"
Health officials and consumer advocates say that in terms of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, there's no difference between Trojans and the less-expensive Durex condoms that the city is offering.
But because Trojans are considered the better-known brand, city officials say, they are willing to spend an extra few thousand dollars a year to try to persuade sexually active teenagers to practice safer sex. The Durex condoms will still be offered.
"We thought making condoms available was a good thing, but we never asked the kids what they wanted," said D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the health committee.
The addition of the more expensive Trojan condoms is the latest move in an effort by officials to flood city streets with latex to battle HIV/AIDS.
The District, where 3 percent of residents have HIV, studies show, recently received a grant to offer free female condoms. And, in what is thought to be a first for a local government, the city is mailing up to 10 free condoms at a time to residents who request them online. Free condoms are also available at more than 100 locations, including barbershops, liquor stores and youth centers.
"We want to support the regularization of condom use citywide," said Shannon L. Hader, director of the city's HIV/AIDS administration. "We are promoting this idea that using condoms is healthy . . . to try to destigmatize condom use, not only for kids, but for grown-ups."
Scientists and D.C. health officials said the appeal of Trojan condoms can be attributed to the company's marketing strategy, including the packaging of Magnums in a shiny, gold wrapper.
"The gold package certainly has a little bit of the bling quality," said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the city's HIV/AIDS administration.New York model
Hader said the District, which began its publicly funded condom program in 2006, and New York are the only cities in the United States with large-scale, publicly financed condom distribution programs run through health departments. But health officials in both cities have been grappling over how to make government-issued condoms more appealing.
New York began its program in 1971 and packages its free condoms in wrappers selected by residents in an online poll. The current wrapper resembles an electronic computer power button. Since "NYC Condom" hit the streets in 2007, usage has soared, said Monica Sweeney, the city's assistant commissioner for HIV/AIDS prevention and control.
"Everyone knows this condom," Sweeney said. The city distributes 40 million condoms annually, she said.
The number of free condoms that the District dispenses has been steadily increasing. The health department distributed 3.2 million last year, including about 15,000 in schools. The city, which has 600,000 residents, is on pace to hand out more than 4 million condoms this year, having distributed about 2.5 million so far. The program cost about $165,000 last year. The Durex condoms cost the city 5.7 cents each, but the Trojans will cost 6 cents to 9 cents each (depending on size).
Last spring, Catania commissioned a committee to explore youth sex habits. The Youth Sexual Health Project survey found that 57 percent of high school students were sexually active and that they were not taking advantage of the condoms at school.
The first hurdle, the survey said, was that students did not like asking school nurses for them. So, city officials agreed to also allow other teachers or counselors who complete the WrapMC course to distribute them. "It's usually the younger teachers or the cool teacher or the coach," Hader said.
And, the report said, survey participants "felt Trojan brand condoms were of better quality and protection." Students also regarded Magnums as the best condom type because they were perceived as "thicker"; the Durexes were viewed as most likely to "pop or break."
"Trojan is more reliable, while Durex are kind of small," said Roger Perryman, 20, a Northeast resident and UDC student. "People just think of Durex as a cheap brand."
Consumer Reports magazine said in a report last fall that Trojan and Durex, as well as the Lifestyles condoms repackaged by the New York City health department, both scored 100 percent in tests of "strength, reliability, leakage and package integrity."
"All these condoms work completely equally," Hader said. "Believe it or not, the Durex condoms come in bigger sizes, too. Magnum has nothing to do with it."
Steve Mare, a senior brand manager for the Atlanta-based Durex, said "it's not surprising" that youngsters in Washington gravitate toward Trojan condoms. Although Durex is the top-selling condom worldwide, Trojan occupies 70 percent of the market in the United States.
"It's just the fact in this market they are better known," Mare said. "There are certainly no issues with the quality of the Durex condom in Washington, D.C." A spokesman for Trojan said their products are superior because when applied they are "a little more generous than your standard condom."
And when it comes to perceptions about pleasure, even New York has broadened its offerings. Despite the fancy packaging, Sweeney said, her agency has received requests for "larger sizes" and "extra thin" condoms. New York, like the District, is happy to oblige.
"I want everyone who is having a sexual relationship to do it with condoms," Sweeney said. "So we try to give them whichever condom will help them do that. . . . What they ask for, we will give them."