An HIV prevention campaign launched by the Utah Department of Health has been placed on hold after Gov. Gary Herbert ordered the department to stop distributing racy-packaged condoms that were given to local groups and health care providers as part of the campaign.

The condoms, which were funded through a federal grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were packaged with themes that played on Utah culture. Some of the slogans include “Greatest Sex on Earth,” “SL,UT,” “Explore Utah’s Caves” and “Put Your Arch Into It.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the governor’s office criticized “the use of sexual innuendo as part of a taxpayer-funded campaign” and asked the health department “to rework the campaign’s branding.”

According to health department spokeswoman Jenny Johnson, 130,000 condoms were ordered as part of the department’s “HIV and Me” campaign that was launched to increase awareness about the deadly immune system-weakening virus and provide resources for high-risk Utahns.

The condom packaging was “designed to get people talking about HIV risk,” Johnson said, and to “remind them, essentially, that HIV is still an issue today and that we can get to zero transmissions in a positive messaging sort of way ...”

Johnson added that the suggestive packaging was not meant to be marketed toward Utah residents as a whole.

“The condoms were designed for a very select high-risk group of people,” she said.

About a third of the condoms, 42,000, had already been distributed to local health care providers and sexually transmitted disease prevention advocacy groups when the governor asked that the campaign be placed on hold.

Johnson said the health department is currently reaching out to these groups “to collect back any (condoms) that they had not distributed to the public.”

What will happen to the tens of thousands of condoms that have yet to be distributed? The health department is not sure, Johnson said.

“We don’t have a solid plan yet,” she said. “I’m not sure what we’re going to do with them when we get them back. We’re just trying to collect them right now. Our first priority is just to get them.”

As part of the HIV prevention campaign, the health department launched a website, HIVandMe.com, containing statistics on sexually transmitted diseases and information about prevention and medical resources. The website has been offline since Thursday.

Johnson said the health department made the decision to “just pull the entire campaign,” including the website, “so that everything could be reassessed.” They hope to have the website and campaign “back up and running with any adjustments that need to be made within the next week or so.”

On Wednesday, the health department released a statement apologizing for the “offensive packaging included on condoms distributed” as part of the campaign.

“The designs did not go through necessary approval channels and we have asked our partners to stop distributing them immediately,” the statement said. “We regret the lewd nature of the branding.”

Some said the health department had nothing to apologize for. The Utah AIDS Foundation issued a statement supporting the department “for taking a critical step forward in the fight against the HIV epidemic in Utah by providing the community with culturally competent and relevant tools” and criticized the governor’s office for interfering.

“The importance of HIV prevention messaging is steeped in decades of robust research within the field,” the statement said. “Denying such information and the appropriate delivery of such information goes against the core principles of public health and what public health governmental agencies have a responsibility to do.”

Other states, like Wyoming, have similar campaigns that use state-centric slogans and marketing to encourage safe sex. The Converse County Health Department partnered to distribute condoms with slogans such as “Drill Safely” with a picture of an oil rig and “Protect Your Landmark” with a picture of Devils Tower National Monument. A spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Health said the campaign was not promoted by the statewide health department.

STD cases have risen in the state, and in Utah County specifically, for years. There were 1,257 cases of chlamydia reported to the Utah County Health Department in 2018, which is higher than the number of reported influenza cases that year, 1,203.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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