Boots has issued an apology after refusing to lower the cost of emergency hormonal contraception (EHC) led to a media storm, including a Labour party letter signed by over 30 MPs.

The apology, published on the multiple’s website on Friday, highlighted its ‘poor choice of words’ when stating its position on EHC pricing. Boots also used the statement to stress that consultation with a pharmacist is an essential part of any sale and commit to sourcing less expensive EHC alternatives.

The saga began in April, when Marc Donovan, chief pharmacist at Boots UK, refused a call from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) to reduce the price of progestogen-based EHC in a letter seen by The Pharmacist.

According to BPAS, women in the UK pay up to five times more for emergency contraception than in other parts of Europe. The Organisation released its ‘Just Say Non!’ campaign to highlight the fact that women in France can buy the morning-after pill for just €7 (just over £6) while those in the UK pay up to £30.

Boots currently charges almost £30 for Levonelle (levonorgestrel) and only slightly less (£26.75) for a generic version.

Incentivising inappropriate use’

In a letter to the BPAS seen by The Pharmacist, Mr Donovan made the point that emergency contraception is available for free from several sources – including the 'majority' of Boots pharmacies for eligible patients via local NHS services. He said the company would not want to incentivise ‘inappropriate use’ by significantly reducing the price of its EHC.

In his letter, Mr Donovan added: ‘The subject of EHC 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 wish to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.'

Boots' price of EHC products is 'in line with that suggested by the manufacturers, he said.

However, BPAS suggests fear of complaints from a small section of the population is not good enough: ‘We simply don’t know who these people are (except hard core anti-abortionists) who think it’s right to charge women over the odds when an accident happens,’ said director of external affairs Clare Murphy.

‘The fact is, most women in this country are using user-dependent methods of contraception and need swift, affordable access to emergency contraception when those methods let them down if they are to avoid unwanted pregnancy and I think most people accept and understand that.’

The story received widespread media attention, including a Labour party letter signed by 35 female MPs. Competitors Tesco and Superdrug both reduced the price of their emergency contraception to less than £15, yet Boots still refused to lower theirs.

‘Truly sorry’

Boots has since issued an apology, stating ‘we are truly sorry that our poor choice of words in describing our position on EHC has caused offence and misunderstanding and we sincerely apologise.

'We firmly believe in the right of all women to access the EHC service with ease and convenience, and have long been at the forefront of increasing accessibility of contraception for women’.

The company re-iterated the importance of a consultation with a pharmacist before EHC is dispensed. It said: ‘the consultation with the pharmacist is necessary to understand the patient’s individual circumstances and ensure we provide an appropriate, safe and effective medicine’ – and said they are committed to sourcing less expensive EHC, including generic versions which can be bought cheaply.

BPAS welcomed the apology, but as far as any price reduction is concerned, the picture is far from clear: ‘We still haven’t heard any detail on when a price reduction will be introduced,’ said Ms Murphy. The organisation said Boots must be held to account to ‘put their commitment in to action as soon as possible’.

Boots declined to comment on any possible price reduction, and refer only to their statement issued over the weekend.

Time for Government intervention?

Sandra Gidley, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), said: ‘We are supportive of initiatives that improve access to emergency contraception and sexual health advice for women. Cost is a barrier to access to medicines, and for that reason we would like to see all community pharmacies in England able to supply emergency contraception free through the NHS.’

Emergency contraception is already free through the NHS in pharmacies in Scotland and Wales and the RPS would like to see this rolled out across the rest of the UK, to ensure women can access contraception regardless of their ability to pay, she added.