Health: They're funny. But are they safe?

Novelty condoms are big business. But user beware: not every novelty condom is a safe condom.
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The Independent Culture
They may play a tune, glow in the dark or look like animals, but are they safe? Couples who have got the message about unprotected sex could still be at increased risk of unwanted pregnancy or of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease, following the introduction of new European Union testing procedures.

An EU directive stipulates that, from 14 June, all condoms manufactured for sale in Europe must carry a CE mark. The intention is to improve the safety and quality of products but, for many UK condom-users, the outcome could be just the opposite.

While introducing the mandatory CE mark may well improve condom standards in some countries, it is more likely to cause a worrying degree of confusion in the UK. The danger is that many consumers will believe that condoms carrying the CE mark alone provide the same guarantee of quality as those also stamped with the Kitemark, the British Standards Institute symbol that currently appears on the UK's leading condom brands.

"While many people may assume it is the CE mark that represents the highest standard, the Kitemark is in fact streets ahead," says Philip Kestelman, the Family Planning Association's representative on the BSI's condom committee. For once, this seems to be a case where British really is best.

To be granted a CE mark, manufacturers simply have to prove that their products are safe (in the limited sense that they will not hurt users by disintegrating, or by being toxic). There are no compulsory tests for condoms' effectiveness as contraceptives, or as barriers to sexually transmitted diseases. Once approved, moreover, CE-marked condoms do not have to be reassessed for a further five years.

A Kitemarked product, however, must meet a much tougher, more comprehensive and longer-standing European-wide standard (known as BS EN 600). The manufacturer is are also subject to quarterly BSI inspections at the factory, as well as weekly and random product tests to ensure that condoms always meet BS EN 600. It is not surprising, therefore, to hear Kestelman warning that "CE marking doesn't in practice mean anything at all."

This is denied by the Department of Health: "There is no suggestion that the Kitemark is better than the CE mark," a spokeswoman said. But this is an area where the Government's ability to provide independent and objective public health advice is constrained by legal rules prohibiting restraint of trade within Europe.

In a situation that the Consumers' Association describes as "ridiculous", government agencies, including the Health Education Authority, cannot now advise the public that products with a UK Kitemark are preferable (even when they clearly are); all they are allowed to say is "use a condom with either a Kitemark or a CE mark".

Since many non-government organisations, including the Family Planning Association, and influential publications such as the National Aids Manual, will continue to advise condom consumers to buy products carrying a Kitemark, there is a clear risk of mixed messages jeopardising years of painstaking health education work designed to encourage the use of only the most reliable condoms.

Most of the condoms sold in the UK's high streets are made by the leading brands Durex, Mates and Jiffi, and will continue to carry a Kitemark, as well as a CE mark.

But Keith Alcorn, editor of the National Aids Manual, warns that "there are a lot of brands coming on to the market from outside the UK, and it's not clear how good they are".

Many of these, which are often available from vending machines in pubs or from specialist sex shops, may well carry only the CE mark. British visitors to Europe who buy condoms while abroad may also not understand the potential problems with CE-marked condoms.

Condom consumers could be further confused by the fact that condoms manufactured before 14 June can quite legally be sold without a CE mark until the year 2001.

The manufacturers of novelty condoms are particularly likely to take advantage of this loophole. Just how many people use these "toys" in the belief that they offer some real protection is not known, but with 1 million sold in Britain each year it is likely that at least some will be putting themselves at risk.

Making sense of the official marks on condoms is not the only problem facing users. Although packets provide information about flavourings or lubrication, they are generally much less forthcoming about size and shape. (The manufacturers fear that men will simply shun products labelled anything other than "huge" or "massive".) Yet condom design can be highly significant, according to new research from the Institute of Population Studies at Exeter University.

When men were asked to try different shaped condoms with their regular partners, preferences emerged.

"All the condoms proved to be some of the respondents' favourite, and we found some men who had a very negative reaction to one shape but were much happier with another," says Ruth Garside, a research fellow at the institute. "This suggests that more emphasis should be put on the range of condoms that are available, and couples should be encouraged to try a selection to find out what's best for them."