California Senate Passes Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act

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Amy Moy / 415.518.4465 / amoy@essentialaccess.org

Bill Seeks to Mandate Free Condom Access in Public Schools  to Address STI Crisis Among California Youth

Sacramento, CA – Today, the California Senate passed SB 541, the Youth Health Equity + Safety (YHES) Act, with a 31-8 vote. Authored by Senator Caroline Menjivar (D-San Fernando Valley), SB 541 seeks to support youth health and well-being, address the sexually transmitted infection (STI) epidemic among California youth, and improve public health outcomes statewide, by expanding teen access to internal and external condoms and the HPV vaccine. The bill now heads to the Assembly for consideration. 

If enacted, the YHES Act would:

  • Expand access to condoms by requiring public and charter high schools to make condoms readily available to students for free
  • Bar high schools from prohibiting condom distribution in the context of educational and public health programs and initiatives (i.e. during sex education classes taught by community partners, through student peer health programs, campus health fairs, or distributed by school-based health center staff)
  • Prohibit pharmacies and retailers from asking for proof of age/identification for condom purchases
  • Ensure there is no wrong door for HPV vaccine access by requiring the Family PACT program to cover the vaccine for young people ages 12 to 18

“Thank you to my colleagues in the Senate for supporting SB 541, taking a critical step towards empowering the youth who decide to become sexually active to protect themselves and their partners from STIs,” said Senator Caroline Menjivar. “By requiring free condoms in all California high schools and prohibiting retailers from asking for ID during condom purchases, we can remove barriers that potentially lead youth to unsafe sex. Additionally, requiring the Family PACT program to provide HPV vaccinations for ages 12-18 will decrease instances of patients delaying vaccination or becoming discouraged after being turned away. I urge my counterparts in the Assembly to follow us in ensuring sexually active youth in California develop safe habits which will protect their health now and into adulthood.”

Youth Speak Out in Favor of the YHES Act

“[The YHES Act] is important to me and young students because it provides us with resources to be healthy and safe… this is something really important to our education system and the health of all young Californians,” said Akshaya Aalla, a 10th Grader from Rocklin, and student leader with the California Association of Student Councils, a student-run non-profit organization founded by the California Department of Education.

“As a high school student, I’ve witnessed the numerous obstacles that prevent young people from getting the condoms they need to protect themselves. Price barriers, age and race discrimination, and other issues prevent some youth from obtaining condoms. I’m so glad that Senator Menjivar is pursuing this bill,” said Ria Barbaria, a 12th grader from Riverside, and Co-Chief of Policy and Legislative Director at Generation Up (GenUP), a California-based student-led social justice organization and student-activist coalition that strives to advocate for education through the power of youth voices.

The measure also includes a provision to ensure there is no wrong door for HPV vaccine access by requiring the Family PACT program to cover the vaccine for young people ages 18 and under. While nearly 80% of California teens received the first of three doses of the HPV vaccine in 2020, the vast majority did not complete the full vaccination series, leaving them without maximum protection.

In response to the bill’s advancement, co-sponsors Black Women for Wellness Action Project, Essential Access Health, Generation Up, and Unite for Reproductive Justice and Gender Equity released the following statements:

“If we are to improve health outcomes among young people in California, we must ensure that they have equitable access to the care and resources necessary to protect themselves and make safer decisions if and when they have sex,” said Onyemma Obiekea, Policy Director, Black Women for Wellness Action Project. “We are proud to co-sponsor the YHES Act, and advance proven interventions that help mitigate the persistent STI crisis in our state.”

“We have made significant strides in California to reduce barriers to sexual and reproductive health care - but youth, and particularly youth of color, face inequitable health outcomes due to systemic stigma and bias, and having to travel greater distances to obtain services. Expanding access to free condoms and the potentially life-saving HPV vaccine is the bold action we need to empower teens across the state with the services and information they want and need to be safe and protected. We thank Senator Menjivar for her leadership, and thank members of the Senate for voting in support of youth health equity and safety,” said Amy Moy, Co-CEO at Essential Access Health.  

“We know that young, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ young people are not only the most vulnerable to STIs but also face the most challenges in obtaining sex-positive and accurate sexual health information,” said Faith Garcia, California State Organizer for URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “This legislation is a step in the right direction to ensure that young people have the opportunity to take hold of their future, bodies and health.” 



Youth Need Equitable Access to Condoms to Protect their Health + Safety

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), condoms are an important and effective tool in preventing HIV and other STIs. Statewide data indicates over half of all STIs are experienced among California youth ages 15 – 24 years old. Young people in this age group make up more than 5 out of every 10 chlamydia cases in California, and more than 87% are youth of color.

Condoms are an effective tool to reduce STI transmission, but condom use among sexually active teens has declined over the last decade. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) shows that in 2019, an average of 20% of California high school students were sexually active and 47% of those students did not use condoms during their last sexual intercourse. 

Teens face multiple barriers to accessing condoms that deter them from seeking and securing the resources they need to protect themselves against STIs and unintended pregnancy. 

Teens have also long reported being shamed and harassed at some pharmacies and retailers while attempting to buy condoms, including being asked to show an I.D despite the fact that there are no age requirements for condom purchases. Teens from across the state have also reported that retail staff have “kicked [them] out” of stores when trying to buy condoms, while others were flat-out denied condoms because they were “under 18” years of age. 

Accessing the HPV Vaccine

Vaccination rates against the human papilloma virus (HPV) are down nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting teens and young people at risk of developing HPV-related cancers later in life. The CDC estimates that HPV is responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, and about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers. Other cancers suspected of having a link to HPV include cancers of the mouth, throat and tongue. While nearly 80% of California teens received the first of three doses of the HPV vaccine in 2020, the vast majority did not complete the full vaccination series, leaving them without maximum protection.