The Great Condom Heist: How much can you get for prophylactics on the black market?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 9 2011 5:35 PM

The Great Condom Heist

How much can you get for prophylactics on the black market?

A condom.
Reasons to avoid black market condoms

More than 700,000 ultra-thin condoms disappeared on their way from Malaysia to Japan last week. When the freighter arrived in Japan, the condom containers were empty, and the locks had been changed. Cargo theft is relatively common in Malaysia, but why would anyone steal that many condoms? How much might the thieves get for them?

A few thousand dollars, if they're really lucky. Although the stolen ultra-thin condoms would have retailed for $1.5 million, the thief will have a hard time getting that kind of cash in a black market transaction. The going wholesale rate for condoms in Asia is just a few cents per unit, and that's among legitimate businessmen. People who buy condoms on the black market are accustomed to getting them for much less. Counterfeiters have been known to sell a couple hundred untested condoms in brand-name packaging for a dollar, and the knockoffs have popped up in shops all over the world.

Asia is the center of the global condom network, both legitimate and illegitimate. Thailand leads world output at 3 billion condoms per year, exporting 12 percent of their capacity to the United States. (The U.S. no longer produces condoms on a large scale. The last major factory, located in Alabama, shut its doors after USAID stopped buying condoms for international AIDS prevention from the company  in 2009.) The top five producing countries are all in Asia, with a combined annual total of 11.6 billion. Even Iran is getting into the act, with a state-funded factory producing 45 million condoms per year.

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Counterfeit condoms have become a serious problem in recent years, particularly in China. In 2009, Chinese police busted a factory that had produced more than 2 million cheap, possibly contaminated, vegetable-oil-lubricated condoms and sold them in name-brand wrappers for a total of $11,300. Some of the Chinese counterfeits have shown up in the U.S. selling under the Trojan name. One importer of phony Trojans managed to sell the fakes to unsuspecting wholesalers.

It's not surprising that a black market for condoms has sprung up—the profit margin is pretty substantial. While it costs only 2 or 3 cents to make a condom, they sell for an average of $1.12 per unit in the United States, with some expensive designer brands going for more than $4.

A condom is not something you want to skimp on, though. Upstanding manufacturers put their products through a battery of quality tests. They hang up test condoms and fill them with water and stretch pieces of latex until they break. They conduct a "burst" test, inflating the rubber like a balloon to see how much pressure it can handle. Manufacturers test every condom for pinholes by trying to pass an electrical current through the rubber. They even toss a few samples in the oven for a week to accelerate the aging process, and run the tests again. Some of the counterfeit condoms couldn't even pass the leak test right out of the package.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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