Are supermarket pharmacies ready to offer emergency contraception (EC) services? Ethical issues aside, a California law went into effect at the beginning of the year that allows specially trained pharmacists operating under signed collaborative protocols with licensed physicians to dispense emergency contraception kits to patients.
A similar program in Washington state was implemented in 1998, and Alaska recently applied EC availability at pharmacies, said Lili Sims, pharmacy operations, Pharmacy Access Partnership, Oakland, Calif., the Center for the independent, nonprofit Public Health Institute. Pharmacy Access Partnership has been actively involved in implementing this legislation, she said.
"Since EC is a time-sensitive product, pharmacies [which often have expanded store hours] provide a unique opportunity to access EC in a timely way," Sims said.
New York and Maryland are also developing legislation for EC availability, Sims told SN.
"It's not a negative thing," said Crystal Wright, vice president, media relations, National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Alexandria, Va. "Pharmacists counsel patients every day, and they would be a good resource to administer emergency contraception."
Although EC products like the U.S. Food and Drug Association-approved Preven, produced by Gynetics, Somerville, N.J., often get confused with the abortion pill, RU-486, emergency contraceptives do not terminate established pregnancies. EC is a regular birth-control pill taken in special doses to prevent pregnancy within 72 hours after unprotected sex.
Approximately 1,200 pharmacists across all pharmacy settings have undergone special training to provide EC services in California, Sims said. In addition, 300 retail pharmacies are currently providing the service. Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif.; Vons, a division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; and Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill., have pharmacy locations in California that provide EC services according to www.ec-help.org, a consumer Web site powered by the Pharmacy Access Partnership. Safeway, along with several other major retailers with stores in California, declined comment.
Walgreens' ability to participate depends largely on physician participation, said Carol Hively, spokeswoman for Walgreens. Nearly all San Francisco-area stores are participating, she noted. Southern California stores "have been slower to provide the service."
While Britain caused a stir after Parliament voted to permit over-the-counter sales of the "morning-after" pill at supermarkets like Tesco last year to combat teen pregnancy, the new California law has been cautiously supported by local supermarket pharmacies, said Michael Negrate, associate vice president, clinical affairs, California Pharmacists' Association, Sacramento, Calif.
"There have been supermarkets that have expressed interest [in the voluntary training program]," he said. Supermarkets like Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., a banner under Kroger Co., Cincinnati, have taken a "wait-and-see" approach, he said.
Major retailers in the Golden State declined to comment, but a pharmacist at a Pavilions store in Los Angeles, another banner under Safeway, said the pharmacy has not attracted any attention from patients regarding EC.
"We don't get any calls about it; it hasn't affected us at all," Omar Manjoo said. He noted that the law allowing pharmacists to provide EC services is completely voluntary.
Other pharmacists said personal and religious beliefs would potentially cause hesitancy among pharmacy associates regarding the ability to dispense EC.
"Some pharmacists don't believe in birth control," said Jim Linden, director of pharmacy, Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis. "To have it as a uniform policy [across all in-store pharmacies] would be doubtful."
However, patients need little counseling in purchasing over-the-counter contraceptives, fertility kits and pregnancy tests. These products, especially condoms, continue to be a strong category performer in supermarket health and beauty care sections.
The family-planning category tallied $249 million in retail sales in the combined food, drug, and mass channels, excluding Wal-Mart, during a 52-week period ending May 19 -- a 4.3% jump from the same period last year -- according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The contraceptives category rang up $235 million in the three channels during the same period, a 3.4% increase compared to the same period from the previous year. Supermarkets garnered $54 million in sales compared to $156 million at drug stores.
"[Family-planning items] are among the hottest-selling products in retail pharmacy," said Wright of NACDS.
Scott Hartwig, director, pharmacy, Harding Family Markets, Plainwell, Mich., said the retailer recently devoted more space to condoms in the feminine hygiene section. "In family planning, condoms are [experiencing] more exposure."
He said people do not often ask questions about over-the-counter items since most stores have moved contraceptives from behind the pharmacy counter to a more accessible area in HBC.
Richard Kline, vice president, marketing, Armkel, an affiliate of Church & Dwight Co. and Kelso & Co., Princeton, N.J., the company that manufactures Trojan brand condoms, said supermarkets could propel category sales by designating family-planning sections with signage. In addition, pharmacists have the opportunity to be more instrumental in promoting the category, Kline said.