Editor's pick: Originally published June 22.
Do condoms really reduce teen pregnancies?
Not so much, according to a study recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Free or low-cost distribution seems to have the opposite effect: fertility rates rise 10%.
The finding seems counterintuitive. Surely if a cash-strapped teen can't afford condoms from CVS Health (CVS) - Get Report or Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) - Get Report , then free ones might be just the ticket. (Walgreens is a holding in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio.)
Indeed, the report's conclusion is the opposite of what was found in studies on oral contraception conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, which showed that access to birth-control pills lowered teen fertility rates, the authors wrote.
The findings are particularly important because teen births in the U.S. are "far above" those in other industrialized countries, according to the report, "The Incidental Fertility Effects of School Condom Distribution Programs," by Kasey S. Buckles and Daniel M. Hungerman, both from the University of Notre Dame.
That makes it pivotal to figure out what works. Neither parents nor communities should assume that all birth control methods are equal, with the pill having better rates of success in reducing unplanned pregnancy than condoms.
The authors came to their conclusions by studying data from condom distribution programs that were implemented from 1989 through 1993, with the distribution being more heavily weighted to 1992 and 1993, the report says. Most schools gave the condoms without charge although some "suggested or charged a small fee such as 25 cents," the report says.
The data came from 22 districts in 12 different states, including Washington, D.C.; Colorado; Maryland; Massachusetts; New York; California; Oregon; New Hampshire; Washington state; Connecticut; Pennsylvania and Virginia.
By far the the two biggest programs were those in New York City and Los Angeles public schools, with a quarter million and 163,000 students respectively. Some programs covered fewer than 1,000 students.
About two-thirds of the programs required that the recipients be counseled when taking the condoms, but notably neither New York City nor the Los Angeles Unified School District did so.
And that may be the key, because apparently, the results "are driven by communities where condoms are provided without mandated counseling," the report states.
Or in other words, those schools/districts where the kids could get condoms without a required talk with a counselor drove the overall jump in pregnancies.
"These results suggest that risky sexual behavior may have increased in areas without counseling programs. We do not see this in districts with required counseling, potentially because counseling effectively discourages these behaviors or promotes effective use or dual-use," the report continues.
Whether policy makers will make any changes based on the study is another matter.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.