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Offshoring Rubbers, Destroying Lives

I have long threatened to start a new Public Citizen division dedicated to the safety of adult products, because, well, no one is bothering to regulate them, as last year's melamine edible underwear scare showed.

Now, this is happening:

In a move expected to cost 300 American jobs, the government is switching to cheaper off-shore condoms, including some made in China...

“Of course, we considered how many U.S. jobs would be affected by this move,” said a USAID official who spoke on the condition that he would not be named. But he said the reasons for the change included lower prices (2 cents versus more than 5 cents for U.S.-made condoms) and the fact that Congress dropped “buy American language” in a recent appropriations bill...

Fannie Thomas, who has been making AIDS-preventing condoms in southeastern Alabama for nearly 40 years in the small town of Eufaula[, says].

“We pay taxes down here, too, and with all this stimulus money going to save jobs, it seems to me like they (the U.S. government) should share this contract so they can save jobs here in America,” Thomas said.

Thomas and others at the Alatech plant said there aren’t many alternatives for them if it closes down, which is a likely result of the contracting switch.

In fact, the government is close to accepting condoms from two offshore companies: Unidus Corp., which makes condoms in South Korea, and Qingdao Double Butterfly Group, which makes them in China.

There's a number of issues here: first, Buy America, last I checked is still intact. But as we pointed out during the debate on the stimulus bill, this can be waived for a lot of reasons, including NAFTA-WTO-style trade agreements. And I believe that the Chinese bid would have to be only 6% cheaper to choose that over the American bid.

Second, given the rampant problems with product safety in China, there are some serious issues about quality control. As the Kansas City Star reports:

Bill Howe, president of PolyTech Synergies in Ohio, a consultant to the condom industry, said China is “learning” to produce better condoms, but their products are still “notoriously suspect.”

Howe, who has consulted for Alatech, acknowledges that the company got a “sweet deal” for years as the only supplier to the U.S. government for international condom distribution. Nonetheless, “they have a high level of integrity, and you don’t get that in China,” he said.

Even Chinese condom makers admit that some of their customers did not care for their products. Chinese buyers have complained their country’s condoms were “too thick, low quality and don’t feel comfortable.”

Problems persisted for some Chinese condom makers as late as 2007. Free Chinese-made condoms passed out by AIDS groups in Washington, D.C., were the subject of numerous complaints about unreadable expiration dates. Sometimes, just opening the packages damaged the condoms, some groups alleged.

Of course, NAFTA-style trade agreements and the WTO put sharp limits on the kinds of product standards and inspections we can apply to imports, while the WTO procurement agreement places limitations on the kinds of product standards or environmental or human-rights qualifications we can put on suppliers to the U.S .government. Read more here, on our section on product safety.

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I get the broader point that you're trying to make, Todd, but aren't condoms for global AIDS programs one product where we really want to get as much bang for our buck as possible? Cheaper condoms means more condoms means less people will die.

Todd Tucker

Generally, I agree with your point Judah; so long as these products are safe, and the U.S. government can regulate them and ensure their safety, and its consistent with domestic laws like Buy America, then yes. I worry that not all of these points are true, and even if they were, it would be important to think about maintaining some condom production in the U.S. for industrial policy reasons.

And here's a question you may know better than I: is the main problem lack of sufficient number of condoms, or weaknesses in the distribution system, or political/social barriers to distribution?

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