Condoms became a pressing health issue in the early 1980s with the AIDS epidemic. The first case of HIV-AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was reported in Australia in 1982. Initially thought of as a disease that only affected gay men, it was soon accepted that HIV-AIDS could affect anyone. Condoms were globally promoted as the best protection against the spread of the disease but, at the time, the Queensland Government continued to promote abstinence as the key form of defence.
Despite this being a national health concern, morality was at the heart of matter for the conservative state government. Under the leadership of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who was particularly hawkish on matters of sex, federal government programs to teach sex education in schools were banned in Queensland in 1978.
Even after 1987’s notorious national ‘Grim Reaper’ AIDS awareness campaign, condoms were only available for purchase in Queensland from pharmacies and supermarkets, while automatic condom vending machines were banned under the Health Act.
In contravention of the Act, several universities throughout the state installed these machines. Both machines installed at Townsville’s James Cook University sold out of condoms within a week! Even though Health Minister Mike Ahern was supportive of condom vending machines as a public health measure, Premier Bjelke-Petersen ordered him to arrange their removal. The police were filmed taking the machines away, becoming a major international news story.
Ahern replaced Bjelke-Petersen as Premier on 9 December 1987. Within weeks, Cabinet authorised an amendment to the Health Act removing the ban on selling condoms from automatic vending machines. Not all Queenslanders were happy with the decision. The government received complaint letters from concerned citizens who feared that easy access to condoms would promote promiscuity.
Condom vending machines became completely legal when the new provisions in the Health Act commenced in April 1989. They remain an important method of protection against sexually transmitted infections.
Cover image: Public health manual on A.I.D.S; ITM3503797