Last month, a new condom brand called Sustain began promoting a self-funded study insinuating, at first glance, that the majority of mainstream condoms are laden with carcinogens. Next a petition surfaced, relying on this flawed study and sponsored by “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,” calling the FDA to “Get Carcinogens Out of Condoms.”
Fueled with dangerous sound-bites, Sustain launched a social media offensive:
And another from Sustain’s founder:
These messages are undoubtedly alarming. The reality is, however, that there is no scientific evidence linking condoms to cancer—and to claim otherwise has the potential to unravel decades of committed work focused on saving lives through encouraging condom use and education.
Thus, those of us who support and advocate for sexual wellness and reproductive health need to take notice and action, especially as these claims are unsubstantiated by medical science.
Melissa White, CEO of Lucky Bloke, investigated the issue and found that the study is burdened with faulty methodology and numerous inaccuracies. Further, it was paid for (in part) by founders of Sustain.
Read the full article, Cigarettes Cause Cancer, Condoms Don’t at RH Reality Check.
As health advocates, educators, and consumers it is critical that we take careful note and act on this situation before Sustain unravels years of positive condom advancement through their alarming marketing tactics.
How can you get involved? Join the #condomtruth conversation!
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– Cigarettes Cause Cancer. Condoms Don’t. http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
– Faulty studies & scare tactics risk lives http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
– Misleading marketing hurts public health http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
– Trust #science, not misleading marketing http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
– Fight #condom stigmas, don’t create them http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
– Unethical marketing is more dangerous than #nitrosamines http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth
– Faulty #condom studies have real consequences http://rhrc.us/12rJOws #condomtruth #bettercondoms
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As Melissa was investigating the RH Reality Check article, she reached out to both Sustain’s founder Jeffrey Hollender and Jessica Arons of the Reproductive Health Technology Project (RHTP), the organization that conducted the study. Jessica Arons did initially write back directing Melissa back to the RHTP study, as well as cutting and pasting paragraphs from the study. Unfortunately, this did not actually address Melissa’s concerns or questions.
You can read Jessica’s response to Melissa’s RH Reality article: “Cigarettes Cause Cancer. Condoms Don’t”, here. Beneath that, you will see that Melissal replied to Jessica’s rebuttal in the comment section. Anyone that has read Melissa’s article, “Cigarettes Cause Cancer; Condoms Don’t,” will recognize that nowhere does Melissa state that RHTP asserts that condoms cause cancer.
In her response, Melissa wanting to redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand stated:
“As a sexual health and condom advocate, I appreciate that Jessica Arons’ response helps to clarify the myth that “condoms cause cancer” — hopefully discouraging future campaigns from exploiting the RHTP report to further their own agenda. To make this conversation about RHTP’s report, diminishes the actual issue. This is not about RHTP — it is about the fact that a report that has not been scientifically peer-reviewed in the academic community is being misused by the company (Sustain) that funded it.”
Prior to finalizing her article, Melissa wrote the comprehensive list of questions (noted below) which she sent to both Jeffrey and Jessica. The importance of these questions is not to attack the study. As a condom advocate and expert, Melissa wanted clarification on the study’s methodology which she has found to have many flaws, inconsistencies and shortcomings.
Melissa received a flat refusal from Sustain’s founder, stating that he did not see why he “should take the time to respond to these questions.” Jessica Arons never replied.
As Melissa has written, she is “of course — very open to continuing this conversation to make certain that accurate information prevails and that campaigns around condoms are free of stigma, scare tactics and shame.”
Here are the questions Melissa sent to Jeffrey and Jessica for clarification on the study, the motivations behind the study, and any consideration made to the impact this type of campaign might have on condom users:
-Names of experts, as cited, who chose the condoms for testing
-What actual criteria did they use to choose the condoms tested?
-Why were obscure condom styles chosen over best-sellers of the brands? or
-Excepting Trojan, why were the most ubiquitous condom styles excluded from study?
-Sources from which the tested condoms were obtained and by whom
-What was the documented protocol for handling and storage of the condoms prior to testing?
-Specific documentation for your study and testing methodology
-Names of individuals involved in implementing the study
-All source of financing for the study and the amounts donated
-Copies of the actual test reports for each brand
-Name/contact information at the testing facility, permission to discuss the study
-ATSM standards applied
-Method of testing employed (as there is more than one method for testing nitrosamine levels)
-Why was that specific method chosen?
-What is the threshold (as per recommended by the ISO and WHO) before nitrosamine levels in condoms is considered high?
-Are you aware of any companies that have taken steps to eliminate nitrosamines prior to the publication of the study, and if so, which companies?
-Several brands have shared proof that they came to RHTP, prior to your releasing the results of your study, with 3rd party testing results (actually the same facility you apparently used) that proved their condoms had extremely low (if not undetectable) levels of nitrosamines. Why did you disregard this information?
-How do you account for the complete lack of even one medical study demonstrating cause or correlation of condoms with reproductive cancers? Is this important?
-Does Karex manufacture Sustain, if not who does?
-Is the raw rubber shipped directly to the factory, and processed on site at the facility, or is it a prevulcanized formula?
-Does your manufacturer employ unique or customized techniques (including rubber, chemicals, processes) for producing all condoms they manufacture, or are these techniques only used for Sustain products?
-Leaching and washing is common practice in condom manufacturing. What new techniques have been developed specifically for the production of Sustain?
-How often are Sustain condoms tested for nitrosamines? Is it for each production run and on multiple batches?
-Which testing method is employed for Sustain condom nitrosamine levels?
-Why do you claim your condoms are GMO free, when no condoms have GMOs?
-Are you concerned this might worry the public unnecessarily?
SHARING KNOWLEDGE TO REVOLUTIONIZE THE INDUSTRY
-I read your statement that you worked with a former Durex employee in creating a method for eliminating nitrosamines. Would you please elaborate on your work in this area?
-Does Sustain intend to disclose these new innovative methods to other manufacturers to create change in the industry? Is there a white paper for the new method available?
CAMPAIGN TO INFORM PUBLIC
-How did Sustain determine the best method and communications plan for disclosing their concerns about nitrosamines in condoms?
-How do you account for the complete lack of even one medical study demonstrating cause or correlation of condoms with cervical and “penile” cancers? Is this important?
-Did Sustain consult with experienced industry peers or public health professionals to determine the safest, most responsible and effective method for disclosure to teens and other at-risk consumers?
-What steps have you put in place so that consumers do not simply walk away with the top-line message and the dangerous impression that condoms are unsafe?
-Are you concerned that your recent statements are irresponsible or might be misleading to the public, for example:
“Eight out of 10 brands on the market contain a potential carcinogen called nitrosamines,” she says. “When you talk to women, they’re so conscious of what they’re putting in their body and on their body, from cosmetics to food, they’re like ‘Oh my God, that is certainly not anything I want in my body.’”
Jeffrey Hollender says nitrosamines are found in rubber products, and many foods and tobacco. “They’re not an additive; they’re a chemical reaction, a byproduct. Nitrosamines are known to cause cervical cancer ...”
“And penile cancer,” his daughter chips in.
Nowhere do either of you mention that you feel using condoms is safer or more important than not. So what is the takeaway for the public consumer from this interview?
Melissa concluded her email, “From my research, at this point, the RHTP study appears to have been completed for the purpose of discrediting competing condom brands and pushing forward the agenda of Sustain both with consumers and with public health agencies.
For purportedly wishing to collaborate with condom brands and facilitate working together for change…surprisingly, no documentation has been forthcoming to support any of the assertions of the study. Instead brands have been stonewalled and no transparency has been offered.
At every press opportunity your message is on point: Condom have carcinogens, but not ours… I would like to afford you the opportunity to respond to my concerns. I welcome and look forward to your reply.”
THESE QUESTIONS DESERVE ANSWERS
Consumers absolutely have the right to know what is in their products. Consumers also have the right to demand honesty. Misleading marketing, scare tactics, and irresponsible messaging is a disservice to all of us, especially to the millions of people who depend on condoms to protect their health.
As, transparency is what Sustain continues to uphold as their core business ethic, we sincerely hope Sustain will take this opportunity to replace their words with actions. We would much rather being working with Sustain to expand condom knowledge, education and access.
Yet we cannot do so until the “condoms cause cancer” messaging Sustain has used as a marketing tactic stops. We are looking forward to continuing the conversation to make certain that accurate information prevails and that campaigns around condoms are free of stigma, scare tactics and shame.