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Officials Target Spermicide in Condoms

Lawmakers and activists call on manufacturers to drop an ingredient that may increase the risk of HIV. A firm says it fears a decline in condom use.

August 28, 2003|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Quiet efforts to persuade some of the nation's largest producers of condoms to stop using a spermicide that may increase the risk of HIV and urinary tract infections haven't worked, so several legislators, AIDS activists and women's groups set out Wednesday to shame them into it.

At a news conference in Sacramento, Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson said they were frustrated when the presidents of three major condom companies recently refused to meet with them to discuss the spermicide nonoxynol-9.

"Since January, I've tried to negotiate quietly with representatives ... to encourage them to phase out nonoxynol-9," Koretz said. "They've dug in their heels and now refuse to meet with California health officials."

Koretz; Wesson; Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation; Sonja Herbert of the National Women's Health Network; and others have signed an open letter to the FDA, retailers and condom and lubricant makers.

"Until recently, N-9 was believed to be an effective chemical barrier against HIV and a variety of other sexually transmitted infections," the letter said. "Recent studies published by the Joint United National Programme on AIDS, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous peer-reviewed medical journals have concluded the N-9 not only does not help prevent [STDs], in some circumstances it actually increases the risk of contracting HIV."

Koretz said he once promoted the use of condoms with the spermicide but was now committed to seeing them withdrawn from store shelves.

"I have known literally hundreds of people who have died from AIDS, and I myself helped establish an aggressive program to distribute N-9 condoms in my hometown of West Hollywood," he said. "Sadly, we now know that instead of preventing infection, N-9 actually increases the risk of contracting HIV."

Wesson, who said he has lost three family members to AIDS, called on the companies to put ethics over profit.

"They must stop and they must stop now," he said. "It is just the right thing to do."

Among manufacturers cited at the conference were Church & Dwight, makers of Trojans, and Ansell Limited, an Australia-based company that produces Lifestyle condoms.

In a statement released later, Church & Dwight said, "Calls for the market removal of condoms lubricated with the spermicide N-9 could confuse consumers about the benefits of using condoms to reduce the risk of disease transmission and potentially reduce condom use. Any decrease in overall condom use could have significant public health consequences."

Condom manufacturers, the letter said, "are already working with the FDA on revised labeling for condoms lubricated with spermicide N-9 to ensure they are used appropriately."

Ansell Limited did not return calls seeking comment. Some other makers, such as Johnson and Johnson and Mayer, which makes the Kimono condom, have stopped using nonoxynol-9.

About 35% of the condoms sold in the U.S. contain a spermicide, and nonoxynol-9 is the only one used.

Studies have shown that increased risk of HIV infection stemming from N-9 condom use was particularly high during rectal intercourse because the rectum has thinner cell walls than the vagina. Women who use condoms with the spermicide once or twice weekly have an increased risk for urinary tract infections.

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) said the letter-signers didn't object to the use of N-9 in over-the-counter vaginal spermicides, calling it an important method of birth control. But Hebert said that offering it in condoms was another matter and that manufacturers were "hiding behind the false claim that they're acting in women's interest."

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Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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