City Desk

Want Condoms at CVS? Meet the “Power Wing.”

Until last fall, condom-buyers at many CVS locations were required to ask a grumbling attendant to leave the counter, trudge to the back aisle, and take out a selection from a locked case. Public health students at George Washington University didn't think anyone should endure that, especially since D.C. has the highest AIDS rates in the country. Last October, they confronted CVS management with a survey showing that the 20 stores with locked displays were in the neighborhoods with the most cases of AIDS.

The drugstore chain promised a change and responded by installing displays called "power wings," which let a customer take out one package at a time. CVS has also installed displays that dispense a package when you pull a lever.

But that hasn't satisfied the students—they claim that the people and the rubbers are still being kept apart. "We're saying that, having power wing or no power wing, it doesn't work," says Shumaya Ali, a health communications graduate student. "CVS has a mission that says it will be the easiest pharmacy retailer for people to use…and it just contradicts everything they are doing with locking condoms."

Ali's group, Save Lives: Free the Condoms, argues that the one-package dispensers—which hold a limited selection of brands—are inadequate. "People still want other brands, and they have to go and ask," says Carolyn Watson, a public health graduate student. "They just have to grin and bear it, so to speak." The group also found in April that 11 stores were still locking their inventory. CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis says that isn't the case now. "There are no CVS stores where condoms are completely behind a locked display," he says.

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  • Amanda Hess

    Last time I stopped by the CVS on Columbia Road, I overheard a very loud announcement over the intercom requesting "CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE TO FAMILY PLANNING. CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE TO FAMILY PLANNING." It appears that though a single box of condoms may be purchased with the push of a "power wing" (buh?), other sex-cessories still require a good public shaming.

  • Eathen Frome

    I've lived in Shaw the past two years. The last time I went to CVS I had to wait for a cashier to page someone or take me to the condoms and unlock them. I once told them that this isn't a good idea given the rate of unplanned pregnancies and STDs in the District. This is not the case at the Chinatown CVS on 7th street. My last try at the Howard CVS was about two weeks ago. I will be sure to look for a power wing. I doubt the wing will dispense my favorite brand--purple Durexes. I hate going there on Sundays, the ladies in church crowns look so uncomfortable.

  • Amadi

    Eathen Frome?!! You even spelled it the old English way. I know your secret identity!

  • Jonathan R. Rees

    Condoms are not the only thing CVS keeps under lock and key in many of our minority neighborhoods.

  • Tom Ryan (CEO of CVS)

    I just want to say that if we'd had any idea of the tedium, idiocy, and public annoyance we'd be preventing in the future, we would have passed out condoms by the TRUCKload in Rees' parents' old neighborhood. Shit, I'd have rolled one onto his dad myself.

  • Jamie

    One must imagine CVS is doing this to prevent theft. I can't imagine they have a secret agenda of ENCOURAGING unwanted pregnancy in the worst neighborhoods. But assuming that's the case, it seems a pretty lame reason -- and I would guess the lost sales are more than the losses they might have incurred from theft. Biting off your nose to spite your face.

    Anyway, the obvious answer is go somewhere else. They sell condoms at Safeway across the street, among 96 other places in Adams Morgan.

  • Jonathan R. Rees

    Sorry Tom, I am a test tube baby.

  • HisFormerNeighbor

    Rees isn't a testube baby. He slid out of the primordial ooze, like most lower life forms.

  • C.V

    I have been to CVS many times to buy condoms. I ALWAYS have to go and track down a sales clerk because the condoms are locked. It's so annoying. It's good to hear that an organization is doing something about this.

  • Margot

    The CVS at Thomas Circle doesn't lock theirs (as of last week at least) and it's open 24 hours. Hope this helps!

  • NE resident

    Jamie Says:
    Jul. 18, 2007, at 5:25 pm
    "One must imagine CVS is doing this to prevent theft...the obvious answer is go somewhere else. They sell condoms at Safeway across the street, among 96 other places in Adams Morgan."

    I think you're missing the point Jamie. I'm sure they're not TRYING to keep people away from condoms, but the effect is the same. And also, as they state, the places with locked condoms have the highest rates of HIV. People who can afford to live in NW will find condoms, but what about Af-Am neighborhoods without grocery stores? That's why reversing this policy is important, to increase easy access for a good that benefits the community as a whole.

  • John

    They do the same thing with razor cartridges (Gillette Mach 3, etc.), even in low-crime neighborhoods like Cleveland Park. Presumably it's an anti-theft measure.

  • Ernest

    And the cigarettes! Don’s forget the cigarettes!... They do the same thing with cigarettes! Which is another example of the lack of trust towards ordinary Americans on the part of corporate retailers. Intolerable.

  • TL

    I'm a former CVS employee. Actually a former Assistant Store Manager, so I can speak on the exact policy. Yes, condoms are locked because of theft. We had to find balance of still providing the merchandise without losing money via theft. I used to work in Montgomery County, MD and Alexandria, VA, with occassional stints in the District. You might find it surprising, but condoms are stolen even in the most affluent neighborhoods. Even rich kids need protection, and they stole it. Either for kicks or because Mommy and Daddy didn't give them their own Amex. I understand the embarrassment factor, but go somewhere else. I never bought them at my own store, but went to one I never worked at or just went to Giant/Rite Aid, etc.. Some people are just plain embarrassed to buy them. Probably too immature to actually participate in the act that necessitates them.

  • TL

    Ernest - Cigarrettes? You are complaining about that? Surely you jest (and you say "Don't call me Shirley"). Imagine if they were left out in the open? How many cartons would be stolen? How many percentage points does underage smoking raise? You have to stand in line to buy them anyways. What's the problem with asking? Embarrassed that you smoke Camel non-filter?

  • Jamie

    NE Resident: I got the point. But mine was that the best way to fight a corporate policy you don't like is speak with your money. I am sure CVS has competition even in "af-am" neighborhoods, as you say. There are corner stores all over the city, and I am sure most of them sell condoms.

    If CVS suddenly finds that sales of condoms go way down when they lock them up, I bet they will rethink their policy. If people just mutely accept it and keep shopping there, then what incentive do they have to change anything?

    On a side note, if I needed to buy condoms on, er, short notice, there's no way I'd ever go to CVS anyway. Is there any CVS that it's possible to get in and out of in less than 20 minutes -- even WITHOUT getting someone to unlock the condom cabinet? Maybe people were stealing them just because they didn't want to wait in line forever while their date was waiting...

  • BR

    Jamie: You just completed a full circle on yourself. In your last comment, you are talking about proving a point in order to affect a change in the policy at CVS regarding condom display... That's exactly the point of the GW students' research and intervention. So now you agree with it...

    Btw, low income neighborhoods do not always have grocery stores to begin with, let alone ones that carry accessible condoms and often, those "corner stores" do not.

  • Scott

    just do what i do and never leave the house; you won't even have to worry about sex

  • Jamie

    BR: I never changed my position. My point, the same in both comments, was if you don't like CVS's policy, then don't shop there.

    I neither agreed nor disagreed with the intervention, which appears to have been partially successful. It's nice - and not a little surprising - that they are a responsive enough corporate citizen to give a crap about what a public health organization says. My point did not have to do with the intervention, but with the general notion of continuing to shop at a big corporation with consumer unfriendly policies. This kind of attitude is why Wall Mart essentially rules the world. We all bitch about the big corporations, but apparently saving 20 cents on a piece of cheap clothing is more important than having local economy to most people.

    And I seriously doubt there's even a single neighborhood where CVS is the only place to buy a condom.

  • Becca

    If Condoms were not locked up there would not be any condoms for "regular" customers to purchase because they would all be stolen. If we want to protect people from HIV why are'nt there people on the street corners handing out FREE condoms? Why are we leaving it up to CVS to "hand out" condoms? Should CVS just leave Syringe's out, so people without HIV who shoot up just take them so they don't concieve AIDS? Pruducts are locked up because they are of high theft. CVS is a Pharmacy NOT A CLINIC.

    All in all- CVS is not the problem.

  • SarahG

    "Should CVS just leave Syringe’s out, so people without HIV who shoot up just take them so they don’t concieve AIDS?"


  • Scott

    lol well played and true

  • Carrie the Red

    No shit, SarahG. That would be a tremendous gesture of goodwill. If they were worried about foot traffic in the store, they could install safe, efficient dispensers of both needles and condoms outside. It might act as a magnet for folks some customers would complain about, but then, maybe not: if it started a trend with other pharmacies, that magnet effect could be effectively spread out between stores across the city so that it would be a shared burden between CVS/Eckerd/Rite-Aid, etc.

    Of course, they would immediately get the abstinence bunch and the anti-free-needle bunch freaking out, but that's why it'd be good for the big chains to agree to do it together. Even neo-cons need to wipe their butts; they can't effectively boycott every drugstore chain at once.

  • SarahG

    Wouldn't it be great? CVS is such a player in the health care industry these days--some of their stores have mini-clinics inside of them, for christ's sake--I think it would be fabulous if they did something to improve public health that wasn't entirely motivated by profit. If only.

    When I was in jr. high I somehow stumbled into a volunteer job that involved passing out condoms and needle works and bleach to people on the street. People were so glad to get the shit. I wish those sort of things were more readily available--and free, of course.