Contraceptive sponge back on shelves

BY AMY MATTSON | JUNE 08, 2009 7:26 AM

The sponge is back — but the once-popular contraceptive is unlikely to regain its former glory.

After a nearly 11-year absence and several on-again, off-again production struggles, the Today Sponge reappeared on shelves this past weekend.

This time, the product features new packaging and a new distributor, California-based Mayer Laboratories. But the contraceptive itself has not changed since its 1983 début — the sponge is a soft, round, polyurethane barrier that prevents pregnancy by releasing a sperm-killing chemical.

Ann Laros, a gynecologist at the UI Student Health Service, said the shape may seem familiar: “It’s like one of those little powdered doughnuts.”

The Today Sponge was originally taken off the market in 1994 after FDA inspectors discovered bacterial contamination at its manufacturing plant. It made a brief reappearance in 2005 under new ownership, but the company traded hands and soon became bankrupt.

A 1995 episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld” immortalized the product; series character Elaine bought an entire case and fell to assessing potential partners’ “sponge-worthiness” when she learned real-life manufacturer Wyeth halted production.

The spermicide-soaked sponge can be inserted to cover the cervix up to 24 hours prior to sex. Some say the method is more “woman-driven” — part of its appeal in the 1980s.

“You had it, you put it in, you took it out,” Laros said. “You didn’t have to visit the doctor and get a pill or tell anyone you were sexually active.”

Today, the sponge competes with a slew of other over-the-counter female-oriented contraceptives, such as spermicides and female condoms, she said. Furthermore, some may be deterred by its relatively hefty price tag, $16.99 for a package of three.

Susan Lay, the community program specialist at the Emma Goldman Clinic, 227 N. Dubuque St., said the clinic is planning to assess demand before ordering the product.

But local experts say there is a slim chance of the sponge being as popular as other prophylactics.

“In the six years I’ve been working [at the clinic], I haven’t seen that many choose the sponge,” said Katie McDonald, a health-care services representative at Emma Goldman Clinic.

That’s more than the UI Westlawn Pharmacy can claim. Laros said the on-campus pharmacy ordered Today Sponges during its brief reappearance in 2005, but no one bought any.

Some pharmacists, such as Theresa Hobbs at Westlawn, did not hear about the contraceptive making a comeback.

Laros said one factor could be a lack of marketing.

“I just don’t think people were informed that it was around,” she said.

Still, 6,500 CVS/pharmacy stores and their West-coast counterparts — Longs Drugs Stores — carry the product. Walgreens will follow sometime this month.

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