Health officials on Thursday were frantically trying to chase down more than 40,000 Utah-themed condoms that were distributed throughout the state before Gov. Gary Herbert deemed them too provocative and ordered their recall.
“I have not heard yet from our staff what we are actually going to do with them,” said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health, which joined with nonprofits, activists, social clubs and bars statewide to give away the condoms. “... We don't have a plan yet. We're still scrambling to get them back.”
The state already had distributed 42,000 condoms inside customized packaging that riffed on Utah themes, such as “Greatest Sex on Earth,” “SL,UT,” an image of a highway sign that displays the number of miles to towns “Fillmore” and “Beaver,” and “This is the Place” over a drawing of a bed.
Meanwhile, the state suspended a related public awareness ad campaign and shut down its informational website on HIV while officials reviewed each component of the project.
“Everything is on hold to be reassessed,” Johnson said. “... We are still committed to providing this type of education to at-risk populations in the state. We just want to make sure it's done in a way that's appropriate.”
But patient advocates say what’s “appropriate” to government officials may not be what best serves at-risk populations. Strategically subversive messages, they say, often are the most effective way to communicate with the public about sexual health.
“I understand it's not necessarily the best messaging for everyone, but I would argue: If it's not the messaging for you, you may not be the person who most needs to use these prevention tools,” said Ahmer Afroz, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, one of the state’s partners in its “The H is for Human” campaign.
In total, the state ordered 130,000 condoms, which were created by Love Communications under a state contract, Johnson said. The agency has declined to comment. Herbert on Wednesday ordered distribution to stop, criticizing the use of “sexual innuendo as part of a taxpayer-funded campaign.”
The objections, Johnson said, focused on the labels “that were essentially playing off of Utah culture.”
State health officials issued an apology later Wednesday, saying the condom labels did not go through the “necessary approval channels” and calling them “lewd” and “offensive.”
Afroz disagreed. “I think they're very realistic and approachable,” he said.
“I think what's being missed is a lot of the social media engagement; if you look at what Utahns are saying, there's a lot of positive reaction to the slogans and the phrases,” he added. “When people are saying, ‘How can I get them? These are so much better than condoms I've seen at the store’ — that is a success in prevention. That's what we want to see: people getting excited over prevention tools.”
But there’s another even more important goal of the bawdy labels, Afroz said: It pushes back on Utah’s reputation for prudishness, which contributes to a harmful stigma around sexually transmitted infections and silences educational dialogue. The slogans signal that it’s safe to learn about sex in Utah, he said, especially when they come with the state’s imprimatur.
“Having something that is Utah-specific is special,” Afroz said. “It takes a firm stance that we're not afraid to talk about this in Utah.”
He pointed to increasing rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in some parts of Utah. In Utah County, for instance, there were more cases of chlamydia than the flu last year.
“Government agencies need to ask themselves, what are they doing about it? This is a real problem in Utah. Hiding from it isn't going to work. This is about eliminating this stigma and these barriers,” Afroz said. “When we're not having effective and comprehensive sex ed in schools, how do we get things to the public?”
The condoms, he said, are a “very small component of a very large, meaningful campaign — but it’s also a meaningful component that they’re taking away.”
It’s not the only component being taken away, at least for now. On Wednesday, HIVandMe.com had contained information on sexual health and disease prevention as well as support for patients. By Thursday morning, the website displayed only a black screen with the words “Temporarily offline.”
The website had no prominent references to the condoms. Instead it contained a clinic directory, information about testing, treatment and prevention of HIV, and facts about how HIV is transmitted.
“From prevention to testing to treatment, nearly everything about HIV has changed for the better,” the website stated. “And the best part? The end of the epidemic is in reach.”
The Utah AIDS Foundation said Thursday that it had been the first comprehensive and truly culturally relevant campaign the state had provided.
“For the first time since the beginning of the HIV epidemic in Utah, Utahns living with and at risk for acquiring HIV have been provided with information and prevention tools from the Utah Department of Health in a way that ... countless national and global agencies have long known to be what the community wants, deserves, and frankly, has a right to from government entities sworn to protect the health of citizens,” foundation leaders wrote in a statement Thursday.
Asked whether health officials were concerned that Herbert’s order had supplanted public health expertise with political concerns, Johnson said, “We honestly haven't even gotten that far in any discussion. It's all been pulling these [condoms] back and collecting them and trying to assess and move forward as quickly as possible.”
The federally funded campaign, which was to include billboards and social media advertising as well as the condoms and website, cost $353,000 in total, Johnson said. It’s not clear how much of that went toward the recalled condoms, but it likely was a small portion of the budget; Afron said the Utah AIDS Foundation typically buys bulk boxes of 1,000 condoms for about $120.
Health officials hope the campaign will resume in less than a week, Johnson said. In the meantime, the state health department hosts some HIV information on its Bureau of Epidemiology website.