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"Victory goes to the player who makes the next-to-last mistake - Chessmaster Savielly Grigorievitch Tartakower (1887-1956)"

Friday, March 01, 2002

Free condoms for everyone...
First let me be idealistic: As a matter of principle all condoms should be free and freely available to anyone. Especially to gay men. They should be free to people you need them and free to people who want them. Freely available in public places, freely available where people meet to have sex, freely available at bars, shops, clubs and saunas. Everywhere.

Ok, now I'll be realistic for a second: What does 'free' actually mean? Nothing is free. Everything costs money. 'Free' simply means you don't pay for it directly. For example, the Government meets the cost of such things as a 'free' education and 'free' health care but of course it comes from the public purse. It's not free. It is we who pay for these services in the end through our taxes. 'Free' in this sense means simply what is provided as one of these services. Therefore I would suggest that there are no such thing as 'free condoms'. It is a service. And services cost money.

Ok now I'll going to be even more realistic: There is no infinite budget for any kind of health promotion; smoking, cancer, you name it. And this is especially true for condom distribution. Now the Government funds much of it's health promotion work directly via the NHS (but not exclusively though, their are other agencies too). And it's a hard reality but despite health being a such hot political issue at the moment the NHS just doesn't get the funds it needs. Certainly it can't begin to satisfy the entire UK requirement for condoms all by itself. It's just too large a demand. Fucking huge (if you'll excuse the crude reference). Equivalent to only four condoms per gay man per year in London alone. There is simply neither the money nor the political will to increase this provision at the present time. However what money it set aside, small though it is, is put to good use. The free condoms schemes are very effective. But then I would say that, wouldn't I? My nearest and dearest Mark works for the NHS and runs one of these schemes - Freedoms - the world's largest free condom distribution scheme. They take the money they are given and make it go a very long way. They negotiate hard with suppliers and buy in big numbers so the cost per condom is very low. They get good value for money. However there is such a huge demand they can but make a small dent. And to make things worse, if this genuine requirement for condoms weren't high enough, some irresponsible people don't just take a couple of condoms from the Freedoms dispensers - they empty out entire boxes of them leaving others frustrated and asking, "why are the free condom racks always empty?" And in the last couple on months this shortage has become particularly acute.

So what's the solution? How do we ensure that there are enough condoms for all? Well, first off I'm going to suggest something rather radical: people need to take responsibility for their own sexual health. I'm sorry, but it had to be said. The NHS has a part to play but basically if you can afford to buy condoms - you should. No, you must. If you're running low go out and buy some more before you run out. Don't rely on free condoms in venues. They are not a right, they're a service. They should be there to supplement your regular supply if you find yourself caught short. They should not be there for you to hoard at the expense of others. I repeat: if you can afford condoms you should buy them yourself. It's your health. Take control.

But there's a problem here. Condoms (and lube) ain't cheap. Packets of three condoms costing £2 is not uncommon. So how come we used to get them free and now we got to pay through the nose? Well there's an answer to that too. Condoms are now a lot cheaper than they used to be. Because of the bulk ordering that the NHS does for it's own supply we, the punters, can take advantage of this discount. Freedoms are just launching a mega box of either 25 Condomi condoms + 30ml Eros Bodyglide lube or 50 Condomi condoms + the big 100ml Eros lube at the discounted prices of £10 and £15 respectively. In most shops the lube alone would cost at least £9! And the small profit made will be ploughed back into the free condom distribution to further increase the reach of that scheme. You'll be able to buy these boxes on their web site or in bars, shops and saunas around town.

So what do you think? Should the NHS be coming up with more money for the freebies itself? Is it responsible and sensible to buy condoms for ourselves? Are you happy to buy condoms in bulk from the NHS? It's not exactly privatization is it. I'd be interested in your comments.

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