Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Some Nova Scotia pharmacies charging women more than men for same cream

A CBC Nova Scotia investigation has found some pharmacies are charging more for a medicinal cream marketed to women than the same product targeted to men — a practice one professor calls price discrimination.

CBC News surveys prices at 46 pharmacies to determine what they charge for Canesten, an anti-fungal cream

These two products are the same size, with the same ingredients in the same tube, but the product marketed to women can sell for as much as 21 per cent more. (CBC)

A CBC Nova Scotia investigation has found some pharmacies are charging more for a medicinal cream marketed to women than the same product targeted to men — a practice one professor calls price discrimination.

The product is Canesten, an anti-fungal cream. The 15-gram tubes list the same ingredients and come in virtually the same packaging, except for the colour and description.

One is marketed to men in a red, white and blue box as a treatment for athlete's foot, jock itch and ringworm. The other, sold in a pink box and marketed to women as a treatment for external vaginal itching, is being sold in some pharmacies for as much as 21 per cent more.

Canesten is produced by Bayer Inc., which says any "significant difference" in price is driven by retailers. It doesn't dispute that the creams are the same.

A communications team for the company says it sells the women's cream to retailers for $5.65 and the men's cream for $5.54. Bayer said the 11-cent difference in price is based on packaging. 

Survey of 46 pharmacies

CBC News surveyed prices at 46 pharmacy locations in Nova Scotia. Of them, 26 carried both types of cream.

Of those 26 locations, 14 had higher prices for the women's cream, three had higher prices for the men's cream and nine had the same price for both.

Among those that charged more for the women's cream was Lawtons. Five Lawtons pharmacies in Nova Scotia charged $8.49 for the jock itch product and $10.29 for the vaginal cream — a difference of $1.80.

Sobeys charged the same — $8.99 — for both products. The two companies are affiliated, and spokeswoman Shauna Selig said they review and compare retail prices on a regular basis to ensure they are competitive.

"In particular with these products, they have different costs, are indicated for different uses, and there are different regulations around the sale of the products," Selig said.

"The feminine product requires that a pharmacist be available when it is for sale to the public; the other does not."

She did not respond to a question asking why Sobeys sells both products for the same price while Lawtons charges more for the product targeting women.

Price differences at other pharmacies

A CBC survey of eight Atlantic Superstore pharmacies found they charged $9.49 for the women's product and $7.99 for the men's, although the vaginal cream was on sale in five stores for $8.49.

A spokesperson for Loblaw Atlantic, the parent company of Atlantic Superstore, told CBC News the difference in pricing is set by the manufacturer.

The Medicine Shoppe on Prince Street in Sydney charged the least for both: $7.49. Pharmacist Brandon Toner told CBC News it's important to speak to a pharmacist when buying over-the-counter products.

"We will be able to navigate the fees, the marketing, because it can get a bit complicated in the over-the-counter section because the products have their own advertising and target audience," he said.

The difference in pricing between the male- and female-marketed products doesn't surprise Dan Shaw, a marketing professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"Some bigger studies have shown that women's products, on average, if you look at a large basket of goods, it's going to be about seven per cent more expensive than the men's products," he said.

'It's pure price gouging'

But Shaw said that doesn't make it right, especially in this case.

"It's something you need. It's pure price gouging. It's price discrimination," he said.

This "price discrimination," also called gender pricing, is a reality and Shaw said some other categories of products and services are even worse.

"If you look at dry cleaning, women are routinely spending 50 to 100 per cent more."

No laws in Canada prohibit the practice of gender pricing.

Other jurisdictions have taken action, including New York City. It has started fining companies between $50 and $500 for gender pricing, which sometimes sees men penalized, as well.

Gender pricing targeting males

The CBC News survey found that at three pharmacies, the men's Canesten cream was more expensive.

Shaw said gender pricing does target men in some instances, such as when they have to pay to get into some nightclubs while women are admitted for free.

But those cases are few and far between, and it remains women who are the main targets of unnecessarily higher prices, he said.

"It's mostly a man's world, which I'm not saying is good thing, but originally there was probably some bias baked into the pricing strategy early on, and somebody has to change that and step up," he said.

Shaw said it is possible to change gender pricing.

"With social media, you can galvanize a lot of people in a short amount of time and have influence, absolutely."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days she helps consumers navigate an increasingly complex marketplace and avoid getting ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca

With files from the CBC's Nicoletta Dini

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