State gives city safe-sex program a boost

Free supersize condoms are New York State most popular, in part because the city does not offer them. Photo: Allison Maier

Well-endowed men of New York, take note.

The state health department is preparing to purchase 720,000 Trojan condoms — 440 cases of Magnums, 280 cases of the ENZ variety — to replenish its contraceptive supply, which goes to organizations and medical centers that then distribute the products to the public for free.

In total, the New York State Condom Program dispenses about 12 million male condoms a year, according to Mark Hammer of the department’s Division of HIV/STD/Hepatitis C Prevention.

More than half of the state’s rubbers end up in New York City, where condom users have complained that the city health department’s widely distributed NYC Condom is inadequate to meet larger men’s needs.

Enter the state’s most popular offering: the Trojan Magnum, which is about 15 percent larger than a standard-size condom — 205 mm in length verses about 180 mm, according to Internet reviews, though width only varies by a couple of millimeters. It’s just one of an assortment of protective products that the state has offered through its program since late 2007.

The NYC Condom is a standard LifeStyles prophylactic packaged in wrappers inspired by the MTA and modern technology. Its 2007 debut was greeted with criticisms that the city’s single size did not fit all. Two years later, the city health department began to offer an additional Durex option to organizations that serve individuals at high risk for HIV and other STDs.

According to the Mayor’s Management Report released earlier this month, the city distributed 36 million male condoms through its program in fiscal year 2012, nearly a 14 percent decrease since 2009.

The city did not respond to questions for this story, though it did send along a statement noting that the NYC Condom was the first “municipally branded condom” and that it has its own Facebook page. While this campaign is new, the city health department has been handing out condoms since 1971, initially in clinics treating sexually transmitted diseases.

An interactive map and mobile app shows current condom distribution locations and lists the products on offer. In addition to health clinics and advocacy groups, these include retail stores, bars and the occasional hair salon — more than 3,900 sites total, according to the city.

Organizations and clinics in New York City that receive city condoms can turn to the state for additional products, Hammer said. About 52 percent of the male condoms distributed through the state go to sites in New York City, he said. The focus, as with the city program, is on high-risk areas and populations.

Offering a wider selection of condoms with varying attributes can help encourage more people to use them, Hammer said. Some gangs, for example, take issue with the color of certain condoms, he noted. And everything from texture to packaging can play a role.

“People generally want to have a choice,” he said.

Providing free condoms relieves individuals of the stigma or expenses that could keep them from purchasing them, said Lynnette Ford, director of the David Geffen Center for HIV Prevention and Health Education for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. It is also a way to raise awareness about prevention, since lack of knowledge is often part of the problem, she said.

The center distributes male and female condoms provided through the city program — a shipment of about 600 condoms a month — in prominently displayed dispensers at its facilities. It’s been more than three years now since it started offering the NYC Condom, Ford said, though the GMHC has always provided free rubbers. In the past, the nonprofit had to purchase them itself. For a Magnum brand, she said, this could cost about $300 a case.

And though the city supply doesn’t include Magnums, Ford said the center’s visitors seem to be satisfied with what is available.

“We’ve had no complaints,” she said.

UPDATE October 1, 2012: In an interview this morning, Monica Sweeney, assistant commissioner for New York City’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, provided a breakdown of the types of condoms distributed through the city program last year: 29.7 million standard NYC LifeStyles condoms, 1.3 million female condoms and 6.3 million alternative male condoms — which include extra-large, extra-thin, extra-sensitive, extra-strong, flavored and studded options. This selection was informed by a 2007 city survey that asked New Yorkers what choices they would like to see, she said. Another round of surveying is expected for later this year or early next year.

“We are committed to making sure people have their needs met,” she said.

Sweeney described a couple of factors that have led to recent declines in her agency’s distribution of condoms. Many small businesses that used to hand out the NYC Condom have been forced to close because of the ailing economy, she said, and local agencies that helped with outreach have had to reduce their staffs for the same reason. The city has also adjusted the number of condoms they give to some vendors, who in the past may have received too few or too many, she said.

The city and state have a highly collaborative relationship, Sweeney said, both working to ensure that people use condoms.

As for the popular Trojan Magnum offered by the state, “The fact is that the vast majority of men don’t need Magnums,” she said. For the 95 percent who are smaller-size, a condom that is too big could slip off, defeating the point of using one.

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