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Condoms in Asia: Sex sells

To boost sales in Indonesia and Thailand, condom makers market the fun aspects of sex.

But marketing matters little if it does not spark sales, say health workers who see little effort on the part of the government to get condoms into the hands of youth and at-risk populations, such as injecting drug users and sex workers.

Thailand has had far more success in reaching out to these groups. But a government focus on treatment for HIV rather than prevention has resulting in an up-tick in the number of HIV cases among youth who don’t want to talk about disease.

“The government’s approach to safe sex is not realistic,” says Pailin. Mechai has also lost some faith in the government and has returned to PDA’s original family planning campaign because he says “it sounds nicer.”

Differences in religion and market structure have influenced the way Indonesia and Thailand reach out to their citizens. The private sector dominates Thailand’s condom brands, which are led by Durex and One Touch. Ads appear mostly in magazines or as posters in nightlife areas, while the Ministry of Health controls public service announcements.

Indonesians bought some 110 million condoms last year – a five-fold increase from 1996, when DKT entered Indonesia. But Callahan says the number is disappointing given a population of 240 million. Considering that Brazil handed out 55 million condoms during the week-long Carnival festival, Indonesia’s figure seems even less significant.

Most people here buy condoms at gas stations and convenience stores, such as 7-11 in Thailand and Indomaret in Indonesia. A three-pack of Sutra condoms costs $0.33, which makes them more affordable for the truck drivers, waiters, sex workers and other low-end users DKT targets.

The packaging regulations that limit the Thai market don’t apply in Indonesia, where a couple locked in embrace graces Sutra condom packs. But local bylaws in some provinces criminalize women caught carrying condoms, and the government has shown a lack of willingness to take on condom promotion by shifting responsibility to organizations such as DKT.

And where Thailand was able to use religion to spread its safe sex message, Callahan says enlisting imams or Catholic priests would not be the right thing to do in Indonesia.

“Religious leaders have an important responsibility to provide the right understanding about sexual behavior,” Dr. Tarmizi Taher, former minister of religion said during a National Condom Week in 2008.

“Islam does permit condom use as long as the use in within marriage,” Tarmizi added. But most married Indonesian couples don’t use condoms and they don’t feature anywhere in Indonesia’s family planning campaigns.