06/26/2009 03:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

CVS: Condoms Vs Shoplifters

A coalition of labor unions is criticizing CVS pharmacies for locking up condoms in some of its stores. The group, Change to Win, says that putting the rubbers behind glass means that young people will be less likely to ask for them, while CVS counters that the locked case means less people will steal the condoms. They also charge that CVS locks up condoms more often in communities of color.

"We do know from studies that free access to condoms cuts down on sexually transmitted infections," said Neerav Desai, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "For someone that has any hesitation about use, this could be another reason for them not to use condoms."

CVS_condoms.jpgCVS says that the practice is done solely to deter shoplifting and that stores where the condoms are locked up also have some available in the open.

With my background in retail and loss prevention in stores in poor neighborhoods, my knee-jerk reaction is, "CVS isn't out to give away condoms or make it easy to shoplift from their stores. It's a business. Big deal. Free condoms are for the health clinics and bars to distribute." I decided to do a small experiment to see how local CVS pharmacies handled the problem since I live in a neighborhood with large amounts of people of color. Here's what I found:

Within 10 blocks of my house in Indianapolis, there are two CVS's and a Kroger with a pharmacy. I went to all three to check out the condom status. I talked to employees in all three locations to check out how their store policies worked and how the policy seemed to impact condom sales and shoplifting.

CVS Location #1

The condoms weren't locked up and were readily available on the shelves.

I spoke with the pharmacist who told me she assumed that they would be put under lock and key soon because they were one of the highest theft items in the store. The rubbers are located within eyesight of the pharmacy counter, but that section isn't open 24 hours. According to her, young people of color are the usual shoplifters of condoms, but are also the group most likely to be caught attempting to shoplift other items too.

CVS Location #2

The condoms were locked behind a case on the shelves. Pregnancy tests, lubricants, and other sexual health items were also behind glass.

I went to the pharmacy and said, "I'd like to buy some condoms." The pharmacist, an older gentleman, was very professional and led me to the shelf, unlocked the case and said, "Grab the ones you want." I picked out the cheapest box there (Lifestyles X2 - "Lubricated Inside + Out To Intensify Sensitivity and Sensation!) and paid for it while chatting up the pharmacist.

When I asked why the condoms were locked up, he told me it was a recent step by the store to prevent shoplifting. As with the other CVS, he said condoms were one of the most commonly stolen items before being put behind a case. Since they'd been locked up, the problem had been solved. He suggested that perhaps the thieves were going to the nearby Kroger to loot the condom selection. Again, young people were the usual suspects, but not just young people of color. Instead, he thought it was about a 50/50 mix of Caucasian vs Latino/black youths.

When I asked how many people were buying condoms now, his answer shocked me. He told me I was the first person to ask to buy condoms since they went under lock and key. He was very concerned about young people being afraid to ask for condoms and other sexual health items. After I pointed out how the company had been losing money on the shoplifted items, he agreed that it was a problem but didn't think the current store policy was the best solution. He didn't have one of his own, however.

Kroger Pharmacy

The Kroger we shop at is in the same shopping center as the second CVS location. The condoms are kept behind glass under the pharmacy counter (not behind the counter - the case faces out to the public at floor level). I spoke with a pharmacy tech that I know from shopping at the store and he was particularly candid.

He told me that while the condoms and lube were kept behind glass, they left the cases unlocked during pharmacy hours. He recognized that they were commonly stolen and admitted that they had watched young people kneel down to the case and pocket condoms without stopping them. He acknowledged that rubbers were a high theft item, but said the store's general attitude in this situation was that it was better to keep the shelf lightly stocked and lose some packages than to force young people to ask for the items directly.

What's the Solution?

Obviously this isn't strictly a CVS issue and I think Change to Win is a little misguided in shaming CVS without offering a workable solution to an industry-wide problem. The chain is in business to make money off health-related items. If its sole concern was preventing diseases and curing ailments, they'd give away all of their medical supplies and medications. It's not their job to make sure youths can shoplift their inventory with impunity or to ensure that sexually active young people are mature enough to ask for contraceptives without embarrassment.

On the other hand, there is an undeniable issue surrounding getting young people to protect themselves and their partners during sex. Unplanned pregnancies and STDs are a common issue in our local community - especially in poorer (not necessarily communities of color) neighborhoods. With less education and less available spending money, condoms are often the last thing on the list for purchase. Still, there are at least three places within a mile of my house that give away free condoms; they can be found for free easily.

So what's the solution? It seems that these two conundrums are opposite, but I firmly believe that CVS employees are concerned about access to condoms just as HIV/AIDS activists don't want CVS to suffer financial loss. While the quoted article says CVS stores also keep some rubbers on the shelves without locking them up (arguably saying it's okay to shoplift those condoms), I didn't see any outside of the case in the second CVS location.

Should CVS give away condoms as well as sell them? Would anyone buy them if you can get them for free at the same location? Or should the store strictly concern itself with what concerns its shareholders - the bottom line? I'd love to see your thoughts on the issue.

(Crossposted from Bilerico Project)