IT USED to be that condoms could be found in China only during business hours, at government family-planning clinics, on production of a marriage certificate. In recent years they have become far more readily available—in vivid and sometimes intimidating variety—alongside the chewing gum, cigarettes and crisps on offer at all-night convenience stores, in hotel rooms and in vending machines. Sales of biyuntao, literally, "pregnancy-avoidance sheaths", are growing fast.
The name biyuntao, however, suggests why use of them is low in China compared with many other countries. Contraception is widely seen as a woman's responsibility—indeed, abortion is one of the most common methods.
Open discussion of sex remains taboo in most quarters, making it difficult to raise awareness of how useful condoms are, not only to prevent pregnancy but also the spread of disease. Aditya Sehgal of Durex, a British brand, says about 10% of Chinese who potentially are sexually active are regular condom users. That is about the same proportion as in Hong Kong four decades ago. it is now about 50%. China's market has plenty of room to grow.
The authorities, fearful of the spread of HIV, have tried to make condoms more readily available in places where prostitutes do business. But they have been slower to promote them more widely. Some university campuses are still skittish about installing vending machines. It was only last year that officials lifted a near-total ban on television adverts for condoms.
That does not deter foreign brands. Mr Sehgal says he has little interest in television advertising in China, where airtime is very expensive and it is hard to reach the target audience. Durex relies instead on social media to build its brand. Chinese equivalents of Twitter and Facebook are censored for political content, but give freer rein to discussion of sex. Humour is part of the mix: one advertising campaign involved posting photos of people using condoms to cover their shoes during a heavy rainstorm. All this has helped Durex raise its market share in China from 30% to 45% in the past four years.
It should help foreign brands that the domestic market is awash with shoddily made Chinese condoms. In April police in Shanghai broke up a gang that was producing and distributing condoms in eight provinces. After seizing 3m of them, police said they were tainted with heavy metals and were "very dangerous to humans". Some of the counterfeits were falsely labelled as foreign brands.