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D.C. to push free condom program on TV

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder

The District government, in a broadening of its efforts to promote its condom-distribution program, will debut a television advertising campaign Tuesday that public health officials hope will resonate with young residents and help to combat sexually transmitted diseases.

"When you go and watch TV, you don't see a lot of condom ads. You see ads for birth control medications. You see plenty of ads for Viagra and Cialis," said Michael Kharfen, of the D.C. Department of Health. "Somehow, condoms have this thing about them, and so what we're trying to do is change that attitude about it."

The advertisements will appear on the region's airwaves through July on television stations that often appeal to younger viewers, including ESPN, Bravo and VH1.

The commercials will mark the first time the city has promoted its Rubber Revolution initiative on television, though it has previously advertised in newspapers, on radio stations and on Metro-owned buses.

After shelling out about $70,000 to produce the commercials, the District will spend an additional $80,000 to buy 900 spots on local stations, Kharfen said.

Douglas Evans, a George Washington University professor who specializes in public health communication, predicted the ads would allow the city to connect with new audiences.

"It will probably increase" awareness of the problem among certain demographics, "especially younger people," Evans said.

That new attention for the program, which has faced opposition from advocates who said it amounted to a public subsidy for sex, could lead to additional growth. In the last fiscal year, the city distributed 5.7 million condoms, up from 4.6 million a year earlier.

"This will be an amazing sea change to see more advertising like this," Kharfen said.

The District has long struggled with the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases within its borders. A city government report issued last summer found that about 2.7 percent of the District's population was living with HIV, well above the 1 percent threshold that the World Health Organization says is the standard for an epidemic.

But the District has touted its progress in recent years, including a 24 percent decrease in diagnosed HIV cases since 2006.

Part of that success, researchers say, is linked to the District's 2010 decision to offer free female condoms.

An academic study published in 2012 estimated that a single year of distributing condoms to women prevented 23 HIV infections.

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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