There have been calls for a boycott of Boots after the chemist refused to lower the cost of the morning-after pill for fear it would encourage over-use.
Rivals Tesco and Superdrug halved the price of the emergency contraceptive following a campaign from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a leading provider of abortion care.
The charity had written to retailers asking them to consider offering a more affordable product, after it was revealed that British women are forced to pay up to five times more than their European peers for the contraceptive.
Boots, however, said it would not lower the price as it did not want to be accused of “incentivising inappropriate use”. Campaigners said its statement was insulting and sexist.
Around 4% of British women of reproductive age use emergency contraception in any given year. Boots charges £28.25 for Levonelle emergency contraceptive (the leading brand) and £26.75 for its own generic version. Tesco now charges £13.50 for Levonelle and Superdrug £13.49 for a generic version. In France, the tablet costs £5.50.
A letter seen by the Guardian to BPAS from Marc Donovan, chief pharmacist of Boots UK, said it had considered the issue very carefully, but pointed out that it is already available for free in community pharmacies and NHS services.
However, towards the end of the letter, Donovan wrote: “In our experience the subject of emergency hormonal contraception polarises public opinion and we receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service.
“We would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”
BPAS said deliberately setting the price high to prevent women from using it regularly was both “patronising and insulting”.
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at BPAS, said: “There is no doubt about it: the high price of [emergency contraception] is an absolute barrier to women’s access to this product and puts women needlessly at risk of unwanted pregnancy.”
Murphy wrote back to Donovan after Tesco and Superdrug reduced the price, asking him to reconsider Boots’s position. “He wrote back and said they weren’t changing their minds and the letter still stood,” she said.
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, which has joined forces with BPAS to call for a boycott using the hashtag #justsaynon, said that the morning-after pill can be difficult to access for free on the NHS, with appointments at GP surgeries or family planning clinics hard to obtain at short notice.
She said: “Many women will need to buy these pills over the counter, and it is irresponsible and exploitative for retailers to charge over the odds for them … Boots’ approach to this concern is indicative of a society that prioritises profit over women’s health and wellbeing.”
When asked for a comment, Boots released a statement that did not discuss the price, nor its reasons for justifying it being kept high, but instead said the sale of the pill was a “professional healthcare service which, we believe, requires a professional healthcare consultation”.
When asked if the reason for the higher price was due to the provision of consultations, Boots did not respond with a comment.