CVS Limits Condom Access For Some


CVS pharmacy apparently has a policy, in many places, of locking up condoms. This means that if you go to the store and want to buy condoms, you need to find someone who works there, ask them to unlock the case for you, and have them stand there and watch you while you choose the condoms that you would like to purchase.

This is bad public health policy, period.  Condoms are the most effective method, other than abstinence (which “fails” more often), at preventing STDs and HIV/AIDS.  They are also the most effective non-hormonal method of preventing pregnancy, and one of the most popular contraceptive methods overall.  Condoms are, in fact, a public health imperative.

And while we may wish to live in a world where no one saw openly acknowledging sex or discussing contraceptive use as embarrassing — I certainly do — the fact is that we don’t live in that world.  In this world, a lot of people are embarrassed to discuss these things — especially women who are often still made to feel that carrying condoms makes them a “slut” and that condom use isn’t supposed to be their responsibility.  And the sentence “can you unlock the condom case?” is just too much for a lot of people in this culture (especially those who are particularly shy or have anxiety disorders) to bear.

All of this would be bad on its own, surely.  But it gets a whole lot worse when you add into the mix that CVS is a hell of a lot more likely to use this lock up policy in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color.

Take a look at this chart, which shows that the less white a neighborhood gets, the more likely the condoms are to be behind lock and key.  When the population of an area is less than 10% of color, only 0-9% of their stores have the condoms locked.  When the population is less than 10% white, those statistics range from 67-100%.  The difference is staggering.

The proportion of CVS stores that lock up condoms increases with the percentage of residents of color in the stores’ zip codes as shown in the table. In all six cities, the percentage of stores locking up condoms in zip codes where people of color are the majority was higher than the proportion in zip codes with white majorities. In five of the six cities, the share of CVS stores with locked condoms is more than three times higher in majority people of color areas than in majority white ones.

As Cure CVS Now’s website also notes, HIV/AIDS rates in communities of color, black communities specifically, are much higher than in white communities.  So this practice is not only discriminatory — the effects are also disproportionately discriminatory and have a much wider effect than they would on white populations if the situation was (somehow, in a fantasy land that does not exist) reversed.

Not everyone has the option to just “go to another pharmacy.”  So while it may be well within CVS’ rights, as a business, to enact these kinds of discriminatory practices — and many others, as you can see — it’s also well within our rights to not shop there, if we do have the option.  After all, as Cure CVS Now’s website again notes, the chain’s two largest competitors — Walgreens and Rite Aid — have policies against condom lock up.

For Valentine’s Day, tell CVS to “Have a Heart” and unlock the condoms. And until these policies change, do your best to shop at pharmacies that give a shit about public health and equal access.

0 thoughts on “CVS Limits Condom Access For Some

  1. AshKW

    Signed and forwarded. Geez. Fortunately, CVS is not located in my hometown — unfortunately, my prescription health insurance is through their program. Grr. Next step is to email my HR director and complain…

  2. eruvande

    I sure wish someone would create a website with the names and locations of pharmacies that do care about equal access, because these days it seems as if they are a minority.

  3. karak

    Minority status is not a primary cause in this. Poverty is. Poor people are given the shit end of the healthcare stick, denied access to necessary Family Planning, and, thus, often simply take condoms because they cannot afford to pay for them. Condoms are damn expensive when they’re your only means of protection. When you consider that STDs are also a function of poverty, that means that many people must use condoms for every sexual interaction they have, and that adds up quickly.

    However, disproportionate numbers of urban poor populations are black. CVS isn’t trying to deny black people condoms, they’re trying to keep their profit margins up. Condoms are small, easy to steal, and deeply desired/needed objects, after all.

    This policy is indicative of larger issues at hand when it comes to poverty and race, not CVS being assholes and trying to humiliate or encourage the spread of STDs in minority populations.

    And this is why I support Planned Parenthood and other organizations that give out free condoms.

    1. Cara Post author

      Seriously, Karak? SERIOUSLY?

      First of all, “is not race, it’s class” doesn’t fly when the two are so inextricably linked in our culture like they are. In that kind of context, classism is racism! It really is that simple. All of this plays off of “black people are thieves.” Period.

      Secondly, no one said that CVS was purposely trying to spread HIV. We said that they clearly don’t give a shit if that’s the result of their policies.

      So you tell me, if it’s not CVS being racist assholes, would you like to explain how Walgreens and Rite Aid have managed to avoid just getting accidentally tangled up in the larger racial and poverty issues at hand? Especially since CVS operates fewer stores in communities of color than both of those companies, and also specifically target black hair care products?

  4. chump

    don’t know how common this is but there used to be a jewel-osco in north minneapolis, one of the neighborhoods where cs locks up condoms, that kept their condoms behind the pharmacy counter and thus they were not only locked away but impossible to unlock for the last three or more hours of each day when the grocer/ drug store was open but the pharmacy was closed.

    i wonder how many other stores have similar policies

  5. Alex

    Just fyi, most stores in Utah have this policy. We’re lucky enough to live by one with lazy employees who leave the case unlocked because they don’t want to be bothered, but have had to ask employees to open it at other stores.

    Part of the reason for it out here is that Mormon youth are often too ashamed to purchase condoms, so they shoplift instead.

  6. Anon Ymous

    wow… because theft is *so* much less bad than sex…

    yegads but I hate the misplaced sense of morality that goes along with so many hardline religions…

  7. Emily

    That’s ridiculous, and you’re totally right in your analysis…I just wanted to point out, though, that the “most effective non-hormonal method of preventing pregnancy” is actually the copper IUD. That doesn’t change the point about the basic necessity of condoms, but I do really wish more women knew about IUDs.

  8. nonskanse

    To validate or invalidate karak’s argument requires that this chart take race, poverty, and free condom availability into account (like planned parenthood).

    I would hazard a guess that this is a problem in urban white poor areas as well, but that it is _more_ of a problem in urban black poor areas. So, the store owners/managers are less tolerant of condom theft in black neighborhoods, because they “knew”(assumed due to racism somewhere in their minds) that black people were criminals anyway.

    We also don’t know what rate of theft of condoms is high enough to justify locking them up – employees may have to be paid more, keys have to be made and re-made, sliding glass doors have to be fixed when they’re broken, etc. Losing 1 3-pack/night does not justify this cost. Losing an average of $50/ of this expensive merchandise daily probably would, however. And that’s not all that many Trojans.

    I’m pretty sure that anyone without a lot of money or WITH a lot of embarassment would steal condoms, and I know people who have seriously considered it.

    In short, racism probably has a lot to do with this, but not everything.

  9. karak

    Yes, seriously. Your column made it sound like some sinister racist conspiracy against African-Americans, when really it’s an obnoxious obliviously classist policy that adversely affects African Americans.

    I just read through your entire post again, and with exception of the tag (which I didn’t notice the first time around) you don’t make a single reference to the fact that this policy is classist in logic as opposed to racist–which is why they can get away with this.

    And I did know about the hair care bullshit– and the logic behind that was ALSO classist that had racist outcomes and implications.

  10. Cara Post author

    That’s because, Karak, it is racist. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be affecting people of color in the way that it is. I already explained this, and I’m not doing it again. And the idea that you refuse to believe that targeting anti-theft measures towards “black” hair care products while “white” ones sit on the shelves at the same store is racist first and foremost and not classist tells me all I need to know about continuing the conversation. I have blood pressure levels to maintain.

  11. Arnica

    We got grants from state health department to distribute free condoms. When some men in our very conservative rural area heard this, they complained, why don’t you just drop them out of airplanes?!! And we said, “good idea! You put up the $ for the plane, and we will. Seriously – we need more free condoms in more free health clinics.

  12. karak

    Okay, I absolutely, 100% agree with you that this policy is racist. The factors that lead to it being formed are racist, and the results of it are racist.

    But the microcosm that the store focuses on, and the logic it uses, is classist. And it seemed to me that without putting a spotlight on how classist logic is used racially, the real bullshittery is missed.

    1. Cara Post author

      But the microcosm that the store focuses on, and the logic it uses, is classist.

      Okay, when you phrase it like that, I do indeed agree. The fact that they can’t get away with openly saying “because black people (and other people of color) steal stuff” but can get away with saying “because poor people steal stuff” is indeed another problem that needs to be addressed.

  13. E.M. Russell

    Could they not make vending machines with condoms in them? Put them inside the store where they can be easily restocked, the merchandise is safe and I would think it would be pretty discrete. That’s what I would hate about this policey, it’s a huge production to just get some damn condoms. Might as well get a loud speaker and announce what you’re doing.

  14. Etherspirit


    CVS should just have condoms in vending machines.

    1) Theft protection.
    2) Profit maximization: People originally forestalled by embarrassment may be more inclined to purchase them this way.


  15. Han5nah T.

    God, the Albertsons near my house does this. I live in one of the poorer areas of town, and an Albertsons less than fifteen minutes away in my town has “uncaged” condoms. It really pisses me off, especially when this grocery store is right across the street from a Planned Parenthood Express. I mean…seriously? It’s not like condoms are harmful, like tobacco. Why lock them up like chew and cigarettes?

    I agree with you, Etherspirit. I’d love to have access to a condom vending machine!

  16. Ash

    Oh man is this disheartening. I read this and my first thought is of young people who don’t drive yet and must stick to what’s in walking distance. I mean, I think it’s terrible for anyone who doesn’t have another option, but there is such a stigma on sexually-active youth, I just can’t imagine how hard it would be to have to request safety. I’m totally for the vending machines. Or the airplane. Or the world where we’re not embarrassed to talk openly about sex. Why can’t we just have all three?

  17. Feminist Avatar

    While this is a classist and racist policy, having worked in retail, condoms are one of the most shoplifted items in store. So, I can see why they can genuinely claim it is an anti-theft measure. No doubt this is because of the embarrassment factor and because condoms are not particularly cheap. It seems to me that better provision of free contraception should be the answer.

  18. Kacie

    OK, I was just at Walmart last night in my town, wanting to get some condoms and they were locked up here as well. And my friend I was with informed me that all of the stores–CVS, Walmart, Food Lion, and RiteAid, lock up any “family planning” items–condoms, pregnancy tests, etc. I live in a low-income, predominantly African-American community with really high HIV and teen pregnancy rates…. Suddenly it all makes sense!!! We are trapped in a cycle.

    And can I just say that I was ashamed to ask someone to get the condoms for me… Sad, huh? Just called my bf and asked him to buy them for the weekend.

  19. jovan byars

    Makes me glad that Allendale County, South Carolina doesn’t have a CVS or a Wal-Mart. Allendale County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation (the highest in South Carolina). Not only that, but the county just to my south is predominantly African-American and is one of the poorest counties in our state. This policy is classist and racist at the same time.

  20. Renee

    In Zehrs which is a grocery store in Canada with a pharmacy, all condoms are behind a plexi glass cabinet that you have to open to access. The minute you open the door a bell goes off to alert you to the fact that you are being filmed. I am sure that this is done to reduce theft, but it also allows people to access condoms without embarrassment.
    I may be a dreamer but I believe that there are certain things in life because of the social good that they perform that should be free at all times – condoms to me fit the bill. They are absolutely life saving.

  21. Brigit

    Thanks for posting this, Cara. I’ve been ranting for some time now about how many of the pharmacy sections in stores here in my town in Georgia lock up not only condoms, but most other forms of OTC birth control as well. It didn’t use to be this way; I remember back in the mid 90s being able to walk into an Eckerds and buy a box of condoms off the shelf. What bugs me the most about this is that younger women, I bet, are more likely to be deterred from buying condoms than younger guys, because of the shame involved in having to ask for the case to be unlocked. I wasn’t aware of the race/class facet of this, though. That’s disgusting.

  22. Pingback: News Round-Up - Blog Posts on Race, Rights, Abortion, Body Image, Drug Policy, and More « Women’s Health News

  23. Sam

    Thank goodness, the Rite Aid near where I live (in Baltimore) doesn’t lock up its condoms. They do lock up the razors (and deodorant!?), which I never quite understood.

  24. Pingback: Daughter of the Ring of Fire » Blog Archive » Happy National Condom Week!

  25. Anna

    This policy is not classist or racist. CVS doesn’t care about class or race. All they care about is numbers. If a store has high rates of condom theft, they will lock up the condoms. I live in a predominantly white area and the condoms are behind the counter at most stores and pharmacies (next to other commonly stolen items like razor cartridges and batteries). If it is true that shoplifting rates are higher in black neighborhoods, the neighborhoods are the problem, not the stores that prevent theft of their stuff.

  26. Booga

    Wow. I heard something similar with CVS putting security packaging on Black hair products, but not others.
    I forgot about it until now. Now I’m reminded that I should boycott this racist chain.

  27. alan

    saw a programme on tv this week about sdis. Shocking. Condoms should be as widely available as possible. Vending machines is an obvious solution.

  28. Saki

    I live near a college town, and the CVS there doesn’t lock up any condoms at all. However, the Ingles in another town nearby locks up the fancy ribbed condoms and leaves the ho-hum bare minimum ones out on the shelf. They also feel the need to censor out the couple on the shelf-boxes (who aren’t even touching and are just a pair of floating heads, if I recall correctly) with an Ingles sticker, though the ones in the case aren’t. Very odd.

  29. LEBKS

    Not only CVS, but Albertsons does this. They also lock up yeast infection treatments along with the condoms. Next to the locked case are facial creams and drinks which cost 2-3 times as much money as the condoms or the vaginal treatments.
    I want to know the true reason behind these items being locked up. Next door to the Albertson’s where these items are locked, is a Rite-Aid where neither item is locked. Somehow the stay in business.
    This policy is disgusting and degrading. The fact that these items are both important to women’s health and well-being is difficult to dismiss.

  30. Random Girl

    I have noticed that most pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, lock-up their condoms, pregnancy tests, etc when they are located near schools. However, this is an observation from the predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood I go to school in and my boyfriend lives in. The predominately White neighborhood I live in does not at all, at least not to my knowledge.

  31. Random Girl

    The PHARMACIES in the neighborhood I live in do not lock-up these items at all. (again, to my knowledge. Schools and pharmacies in the suburbs I live in are not as close to each other as the schools and pharmacies are in more “city” type areas)

  32. Yamster

    Just today, I noticed the CVS in NYC (42nd and 10th) has every bath product locked. Actually, they are open, but you have to slide over this plastic thing that hangs on the shelf. It makes a loud noise, which is an anti-theft device. I didn’t see whether the condoms were locked, but they likely were.

    This is a good story with a lot of good points, that condoms should never be locked up. If someone doesn’t use condoms because they were too shy to ask for them, that is another unintended pregnancy, or possible STD transmission.


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