Boots has said it is “truly sorry” for the way it responded to a campaign calling for it to cut the price of emergency contraception and said it is looking for cheaper alternatives.
The announcement, late on Friday night, came after news that the women’s parliamentary Labour party (PLP) had written to the store’s chief pharmacist to express “deep concern” about the company’s refusal to reduce the price of emergency contraception, and as calls for a boycott continue to grow.
Boots had said on Thursday it would not lower the cost of the morning-after pill despite a campaign from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a leading provider of abortion care, with its chief pharmacist, Marc Donovan, stating that the company did not want to be accused of “incentivising inappropriate use”.
Campaigners said the statement was insulting and sexist, and on Friday Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe – where the Boots headquarters is located – said she was also writing a letter to the company asking it to make clear its reasons for not reducing prices.
The Labour letter, signed by the chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party, Jess Phillips, as well as a number of prominent MPs including Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves, said: “Boots is the largest high-street pharmacy in the UK, and 90% of the population lives within 10 minutes of one of their shops.
“It is therefore completely unacceptable that British women have been paying up to £30 for a pill that costs a fraction of that to produce. The high cost of emergency contraception at Boots is preventing women from accessing it when needed.”
Both Tesco and Superdrug halved the price of their emergency contraceptive following the BPAS campaign, but Boots continues to charge £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.
“Boots’ justification infantalises women and places a moral judgment on them,” Phillips told the Guardian. “Their pricing is clearly for commercial gain as Tesco and Superdrug have addressed this issue with sensible pricing.
“Women do not need to be disincentivised by Boots to make personal choices about their bodies. We women go to Boots for our products, not moral guidance. Public opinion is not on their side so if they are worried about complaints they are listening to the wrong voices and customers should vote with their feet.”
Phillips said she did not believe Boots “would ever pass moral judgment on men’s contraceptives”. “Do they give a lecture on consent with all condom purchases?” she said.
In a recent YouGov survey, the median cost suggested by women for emergency contraception was £8, and the median cost suggested by men was £5. Almost a third of women and a quarter of men, the Labour letter added, believed emergency contraception should be free of charge.
“Concern about adverse criticism from pressure groups seems a very strange reason not to do the right thing,” Soubry said. “This is perfectly proper and lawful treatment. I’ve always found Boots to be an excellent business company, they employ a lot of people in my constituency, they are a valued employer and they’ve always had a strong desire to do the right thing throughout the whole of their long history. So not doing this doesn’t sit with the way Boots normally operates and the high standing it has locally.
“I would hope that they would be true to their tradition of doing the right thing, and doing the right thing is not giving in to pressure from the noisiest quarters. I am asking them for what reasons they are not reducing the cost of the morning-after pill given that other companies have reduced the charge. I urge them to reduce prices in accordance with their competitors.”
The MP Stella Creasy tweeted that Boots’ decision “contravenes consumer rights act given adds disproportionate charge which is not advertised”, while the writer Marian Keyes was among those condemning the company on Twitter, saying she would be “withdrawing my (considerable) custom”.
Announcing the retailer’s change of stance on Friday night, a spokesman for Boots said: “Pharmacy and care for customers are at the heart of everything we do, and as such we are truly sorry that our poor choice of words in describing our position on emergency hormonal contraception has caused offence and misunderstanding, and we sincerely apologise.”
In his original response to campaigners, Donovan said that Boots considered the issue very carefully but pointed out that the morning-after pill is already available for free in community pharmacies and NHS services.
Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality party, which had 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.
“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,” Walker said.
Ann Clwyd MP, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sexual and reproductive health, said: “Boots need to wise up. The reality is there are too many unwanted births. How come the tablets are available in France for £5.50? A case of Boots’ profit priority, I would say.”