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Back to school? Don't forget a pack of condoms and lubricant

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

People in the US generally think of back-to-school as a time for discounts on laptops and backpacks, a mad dash for textbooks and CliffsNotes, a chance to stock up on wool tights and warm socks. Few associate it with latex.

Yet fall also happens to be back-to-school season for the condom industry. Students are unlikely to find a Sunday circular encouraging them to pick up a Durex Pleasure Pack along with their composition books.

But it is a good bet they will find some sort of condom promotion on their college campuses. Some deliver grave messages about sexually transmitted diseases; others are humorous riffs on masculinity. But the goal is the same: to introduce the companies' products to freshmen, create new health habits and, of course, drive future sales.

"If you look at condom sales, there are different peaks," said Jim Daniels, the vice president for marketing at Trojan, which dominates the US condom market. He cited New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day and even the Fourth of July, but said the back-to-school season is a particularly good opportunity for recruiting young customers.

"A third of condoms are purchased by college-age students," Daniels said. "Therefore it's a very important target. Very often people become sexually active during those years."

While some colleges prefer, for religious or other reasons, not to have condoms on campus, college administrators who endorse condom use agree that this is a significant time of year for getting students started on new habits.

"Students are, for the first time, out on their own," said Lora Jasman, the director of student health services at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "And they have to make decisions on their own. It's critical we find ways to reach out to them."

To that end, she said free condoms are available in "a whole host of places, including condoms that are in a big basket in a student employee office."

Doctors, family planning groups and health organizations are unambiguous in endorsing condoms as the most effective means of reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection, as well as a way to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy. "Condoms provide an enormously high protection rate," said Jeff Waldman, the senior director of clinical services at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

So with condom manufacturers eager to mine a ready market, and with administrators happy to receive free or discounted products that will keep students healthy, condom distribution at many colleges around the country has become as fundamental to freshman orientation as buying textbooks and finding the dining hall.

At Oregon State, "safer sex" kits are filled with condoms, lubricant and Hershey's Kisses; at Stanford, each student receives 12 free condoms from the student-run Sexual Health Peer Resource Center, which is also beginning its annual educational "field trips" on which freshmen are escorted from their dorms to the center for an introductory talk.

Overall, condom sales in the US were worth US$398.3 million last year, up 2.8 percent from 2004, according to the market research publisher Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com. And although it is not known how much of the increase is due to purchases by college students, the condom manufacturers are dreaming up ever more creative ways to get their attention. Marketers are increasing their print, television, Web and radio advertising to appeal to students, but their campus appearances generate the most buzz.

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