We’ve long lagged behind other countries when it comes to the prohibitive cost of the morning-after pill, shelling out around £30 for emergency contraception – a price point manufacturers admit is a deliberate move to discourage women from obtaining it.
After the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) campaigned for it to be made more accessible in November (“There is no financial justification for the high price of this pill, nor clinical reason for a consultation”), one high-street chemist has stepped up to the plate and slashed the price.
Superdrug will soon be selling Ezinelle for £13.49 – around half the £25-30 chemists currently charge for both branded and unbranded.
Ezinelle contains the same active ingredient – levonorgestrel – as well-known brands such as Levonelle.
Michael Henry, Superdrug’s healthcare director, said: “We're committed to leading the way in sexual health and offering a generic emergency contraceptive pill at half the price of what’s currently available on the high street.
“Its availability will give women more choice and access to this medication at a time when they are most in need.”
BPAS welcomed the move, calling it a “trailblazing step” toward making emergency contraception more accessible – and emphasised that the morning-after pill is safe and effective.
Ann Furedi, chief executive, said: “We are delighted Superdrug has taken this trailblazing step, and look forward to other major retailers following its lead.
“We know the high cost of emergency contraception can be a major barrier to women accessing it when their regular method fails. Superdrug has illustrated that it’s perfectly possible to sell this safe and effective medication to women at a significantly more affordable price than is currently on offer.
“There is frankly now no excuse for others not to do the same. We will keep campaigning on this issue until all retailers do the right thing and offer women a fairly priced product, as Superdrug is doing today.“
According to research from the European Consortium for Emergency Contraception released last year, the morning-after pill costs up to five times more to purchase in Britain than it does in other European counties, such as France, where it can be bought for little over £5.
According to its website, Boots – Superdrug’s main competitor – offers prices starting from £26.75.
The morning-after pill is available free of charge from GPs and NHS clinics, but as many have pointed out, visiting a chemist is often the only choice given GP opening hours, the difficulty in getting a same-day appointment and drastic cuts to sexual health services in recent years. The medication is more effective the earlier it is taken.
Additionally, there may be teenagers uncomfortable with visiting their family doctor and sitting in the waiting room with the possibility someone they know may walk through the door.
Yet for many, finding £30 can be difficult, if not impossible.
Dr Pixie McKenna, Superdrug’s health and wellbeing ambassador, said: “Emergency contraception is almost inevitably needed at times when the surgery doors are shut.
“As it is a time-sensitive issue, quick and discreet access is imperative.
“As doctors we always try to prescribe generic drugs as we are confident their effectiveness won't be compromised because they cost less.”
Women will still have to discuss their sex life in a consultation before being able to purchase the tablets, something BPAS also believes should be scrapped, especially as many face judgement, embarrassment and patronising comment.
BPAS has previously called for the medicine to be reclassified so it can be sold off the shelf as in other countries.
“For some women, having an opportunity to talk about their contraceptive needs can be very useful. But for some women, it’s unnecessary, and for some women it can be embarrassing, and there’s a feeling of judgement,” Katherine O’Brien, a BPAS spokesperson, said last year.
“In some larger pharmacies, you can be given the option of going to a separate room or area, but sometimes these very personal questions are delivered to women in a queue on their lunch break in a really busy pharmacy.”
A report by Pharmaceutical Journal in 2003 revealed that the makers of Levonelle had purposefully set the price high (then at around £24, increased from the initial price of £19.99) to discourage “regular” use. A spokesperson said: “The price has been set, in part, to ensure that [emergency contraception] is not used as a regular method of contraception.”
Some critics believe the increased accessibility of the morning-after pill could increase the risk of it being “misused or overused” – though how one misuses the morning-after pill is anyone’s guess, especially when everyday painkillers such as paracetamol can kill yet can be bought freely, without consultation, for around 30p a box.
BPAS says the drug is “considerably safer” than other easily obtainable medications off the shelf.
Images: iStock / Rex Features