By Lesley Grimm
Rubbers, love gloves or just plain old condoms – call them what you will – these popular prophylactics are at the center of nasty public spat. The city recently launched its official “NYC Condom” and began handing out millions of freebies to blushing New Yorkers. But Catholic leaders blasted this decision, accusing Mayor Bloomberg’s administration of degrading society and promoting promiscuity. Bloomberg fended off the condom-nation, describing his program as a “real world” effort to save lives. “This is not an issue of faith,” Bloomberg said on his weekly WABC radio show. “This is a health issue for the city.” Bloomberg was forced to respond to a scathing joint statement released by Edward Cardinal Egan, head of the Archdiocese of New York, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who labeled the initiative “tragic and misguided.” “Political leaders fail to protect the moral tone of our community when they encourage inappropriate sexual activity by blanketing our neighborhoods with condoms,” the statement said. The clergymen asserted that taxpayer dollars are being spent to promote an “anything goes” attitude, and would be better spent teaching “what is true and what is decent.” The row began on Valentine’s Day, when the New York City Health Department unveiled its new branded condom and volunteers passed out 150,000 of them to morning commuters. The distinctive black wrappers read “NYC Condom.” Each letter is a brightly-colored circle, in the same style as New York’s iconic color-coded subway system. We showed the new condom design to some Brooklyn residents, and their reactions ranged from enthusiasm to confusion. “It’s a neat way to market them,” said Shika Deswal, 25, as she prepared to board the R train at the 95th Street station in Bay Ridge. “I think it’s cool,” added friend Sukhmani Bhatti, 27. “Promoting safe sex is always a good thing,” said fellow Ridgite and subway rider “Jennifer” – who declined to offer her last name. Bay Ridge’s Patricia Martin, 41, didn’t take offense to the safe sex message, but questioned the subway motif. “It’s strange, and it’s odd,” she said. The new branding effort builds on a public health initiative dating back to the 1971, when the city’s Health Department started distributing condoms through its clinics. The program has expanded over time to 18 million giveaways per year, with the “NYC Condom” venture to further increase that number. The condoms are manufactured by LifeStyles, and cost the city about four cents apiece. With such wide circulation, the program will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, called the spending a “financial disgrace” and said the money could be better spent on pay increases for cops and firefighters. “Everyone can afford a condom,” Donahue said. “This is positively ludicrous.” The condoms are also featured in a new advertizing blitz. The Health Department is blanketing subways and phone booths with posters declaring “New York’s hottest new wrapper” and “New York, We’ve got you covered.” Underneath the slogan reads, “NYC Condoms – Get some.” This initiative is the latest – and perhaps most creative – move to curb what remains a significant public health crisis. Mayor Bloomberg called the city’s rate of HIV infection “unconscionably high” with more than 100,000 residents living with the virus. Approximately 1 in 70 New Yorkers is infected with the disease. New York City has the highest AIDS case rate in the country, with more AIDS cases than Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and Washington DC combined. “For sexually active people, using a condom is key to staying healthy,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, who also noted that only abstinence is “failsafe.” Clinics and community organizations that currently receive condoms from the Health Department will receive the new subway-themed model. Additionally, officials are soliciting businesses to “partner” in the campaign. The Health Department is offering condoms to any establishment that wishes to distribute the product. Organizations and individuals can find out where and how to get free NYC Condoms by calling 311, or visiting www.nyccondom.org.