Boots accused a charity which had lobbied for pharmacies to reduce the price of emergency contraception of encouraging the abuse and harassment of senior staff, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The claim was made in a formal complaint sent to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) at the beginning of August by law firm Schillings LLP.
Boots, the largest pharmacy chain in the UK, faced a huge backlash from MPs and members of the public after its chief pharmacist Marc Donovan said in July that the company did not plan on reducing the price of emergency contraceptive pills, because doing so could "incentivise inappropriate use".
BPAS had launched a tool, or widget, on its website that allowed people to send complaints to Boots regarding its pricing of the morning-after pill.
The legal letter from Schillings, which is known for handling reputation-related cases for Ryan Giggs and Lance Armstrong, stated that Boots received a “torrent of personal abuse” on social media as a result of the BPAS campaign.
The letter accused BPAS of the “facilitation and tacit encouragement of personal abuse” that “caused immense personal distress” to senior Boots staff.
Thousands of people also wrote to Boots using an email template provided by BPAS urging its head of corporate social responsibility to follow fellow pharmacies in lowering the price of the morning-after pill.
Lawyers for Boots objected to individual employee’s names being included in the email template, said the company's employees had received abusive emails and messages on social media, and asked BPAS to not single out employees in the campaign (or future campaigns).
A BPAS spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that emails sent using its website template included responses from women on low incomes who had bought emergency contraception from Boots, as well as pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and midwives.
"I skipped lunch that week to cover the cost" of the morning-after pill, one woman wrote, in an email provided to BuzzFeed News by BPAS. She called Boots's initial comments in July "absolutely abhorrent" and said they reflect "a complete lack of corporate morality and responsibility as well as understanding of your customers".
Another wrote: “I had to weigh up the risk of an unwanted pregnancy a time at a difficult time in my life against using up approx 30% of the money I had left until payday. This caused unnecessary distress."
BPAS rejected accusations of inciting harassment against senior Boots executives.
"A company cannot experience alarm or distress," lawyers for BPAS wrote to Schillings in response, in a letter seen by BuzzFeed News.
"All BPAS is providing is a means by which concerned members of the public may address their concerns to your client and one or more of its senior executives."
The letter continued: "In their various ways the senders implore Boots to reconsider its stance for the benefit of women's health, some sharing personal experience of seeing women pregnant as a result of struggling to access emergency contraception.
"Many are lifelong Boots customers who express their profound disappointment in Boots' stance and write that they will no longer be shopping with the company until the situation is resolved.
"While this criticism may be unpleasant to hear, it is a disservice to Boots' customers and other stakeholders to describe it as abuse. BPAS has seen nothing which could be reasonably described as personal abuse, let alone abuse that might cause immense personal distress to senior company executives."
Lawyers for BPAS added that they hoped their client's campaign for cheaper emergency contraception would come to a "natural close as Boots delivers delivers on its commitment to providing women with a more affordable product".
While Boots did apologise for a "poor choice of words in describing our position on Emergency Hormonal Contraception (EHC)", and later pledged to reconsider its pricing of emergency contraception, details of this are yet to be made clear.
The morning-after pill can be obtained for free via a sexual health clinic with a prescription from a GP, but difficulty getting a GP appointment within the 72 hours in which the drug is effective means buying it over the counter can be a more reliable option. Higher costs of emergency contraception at Boots can prove a barrier to those on lower incomes, BPAS has argued.
One GP who wrote to Boots to protest its pricing agreed. "With the increasing pressure on GP appointments it is more important than ever that women and girls should have timely access to post coital contraception from pharmacies, and your current pricing strategy is a barrier to this,” they said.
In July pharmacies including Superdrug, Tesco, and Lloyds reduced the price of some over-the-counter oral emergency contraceptive drugs from around £28 to £13, following the campaign by BPAS. Boots currently charges £28.25 for the widely used Levonelle brand of the drug, and £26.25 for a generic version.
Today, Boots announced that from October it will sell a generic version of the levonorgestrel-based emergency hormonal contraception for £15.99 – a price that has been trialled in 38 stores this month. A spokesperson for Boots said it needed to be "assured of supply" and was therefore unable to roll out the price at all stores immediately.
Contacted by BuzzFeed News, a Boots spokesperson said: "As a responsible employer, we actively seek to protect our colleagues from abuse and harassment. In our legal letter to BPAS we made it very clear that we welcome the debate on the provision of EHC, and respect their right to raise this issue with us.
"We asked them simply to remove personal email details from their campaign widget and to agree not to encourage personal abuse of our people. We provided examples of where our employees have received abuse by email and social media in response to BPAS’s campaign. BPAS have not yet agreed to do this and we will continue to ask that they agree to our simple request, which was made only to protect the interests of our employees. We hope to receive a constructive response from BPAS, and do not wish to comment further at this time."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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