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The Redbox vending machine on 18th Street NW was designed to act as a fully automated convenience store, dispensing a wide range of merchandise round the clock. But since August, Redbox customers have been unable to make one popular late-night impulse purchase: condoms.

Condoms were one of the top sellers in the machine when it made its national debut in February 2002—under the name “Tik Tok Easy Shop”—on Georgia Avenue near Howard University. Prophylactics rivaled toilet paper, cough medicine, and packaged sandwiches in popularity at the Georgia Avenue spot and at the Adams Morgan corner to which it relocated.

Despite the demand, the McDonald’s Corp., which owns the Redbox, decided to stop making condoms available in the machine. “I will not lie to you—they were a very popular item,” says McDonald’s business-development director Mark McGuire. “But McDonald’s Corporation made a decision that it does not fit with our values as a company.” The fast-food giant, he says, sees itself as “a very family-oriented company.”

The move, McGuire says, was an “internal decision” rather than the result of outside complaints about the company’s selling condoms. “We probably got more complaints when we took [the condoms] out,” he says.

With nearby 7-Eleven stores off Columbia Road NW and in Dupont Circle offering condoms 24 hours a day, the Redbox was never the only source for late-night lovers in Adams Morgan to gear up. (Its sibling machine in Bethesda never offered condoms.) Still, Margaux Delotte-Bennett of the Sexual Minority Youth Adult League, a D.C.-based advocacy group for safer sex, believes that the McDonald’s decision was detrimental to public health. “Folks need to be thinking about safety all day or night,” she says.

Some Redbox customers are likewise peeved. “I think using condoms is about family values,” says Adams Morgan resident Simone LeBlanc, after dropping rented DVDs of 8 Mile and Drumline into the Redbox return.

McDonald’s faced a similar crisis of values in April, when a number of its New Zealand franchises refused to distribute the youth magazine Tearaway—usually available in that country’s McDonald’s restaurants—because it featured a story about gay and lesbian teens and a contest giving away condoms. In a letter to Tearaway, McDonald’s said it gave individual franchises the right to ban the issue. “As a family restaurant, we are frequented by people of all ages, particularly families and children, consequently we have no control over who picks up this issue,” the letter stated.

Redbox does not, however, show quite so much restraint in its DVD offerings, which include such non-family-classics as Braveheart and Sex and the City compilations. The machines, McGuire says, have sold out of the boxed set of The Sopranos. Pornographic movies are off limits, McGuire says, but adult fare is not. “There may be some objectionable content,” he says, “but we’re trying to make these products available to our customers.” CP