The case of the missing tampons

The popular O.B. brand is so hard to find now, boxes are turning up on eBay for $50
The case of the missing tampons
Getty images; Photo illustration by Luaren Cattermole

It’s perhaps because of the O.B. tampon’s long-time advertising tag line—“Made for a woman, by a woman”—that it’s disappearance from North American drugstore shelves in the past months has left so many women feeling so utterly betrayed. Compact yet effective, the only tampon available in the U.S. and Canada that requires no applicator, the O.B. commands a small but dedicated following. When it began going missing in September—first the extra-absorbent O.B. Ultra, then all O.B. lines—some women scoured stores and hoarded stock to the point they’re now almost entirely unavailable. Cartons of O.B. Ultra are popping up on eBay at prices pushing US$50 a box.

The shortage has triggered a conversation few women have had even with each other about what feminine hygiene products they prefer and why—one that’s filled online message boards with such crucial debates as the advisability of shipping contraband tampons from Germany or the wisdom of switching to reusable menstrual cups. “It is utterly disturbing to me that a product that has seen me through the decades is now no longer available or affordable,” one woman writes.

If the mystery of the vanishing tampons has some women confused, the lack of communications from O.B. manufacturer McNeil-PPC, a division of Johnson & Johnson, has others enraged. As one Toronto woman says: “If men had to stick something into their penis once a month, this would be a bigger deal.” Johnson & Johnson discontinued its Ultra line but has been cagey about why. A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson tells Maclean’s there have been “no unusual reports of adverse events” related to the Ultra, and calls the move to discontinue the tampon a “business decision.” But the company hasn’t explained why other O.B. lines experienced a “temporary supply interruption,” as it calls the shortage. Meanwhile, an online petition threatens the company with a “girlcott” should it fail to bring back the Ultra. “I wish they all start menstruating profusely, men and women alike who were involved in the decision,” writes one woman. “Karma, hear me!”

Yet cosmic forces are unlikely to be of help given the market forces at play. Although industry numbers aren’t widely available, Global Industry Analysts, Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based market research firm, estimates the world market for feminine hygiene products will reach US$14.3 billion by 2015—an arena almost entirely controlled by a handful of companies, principally Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. “It’s not a transparent industry,” says Madeleine Shaw, co-founder of Vancouver’s Luna­pads International Products Ltd., which makes and distributes reusable fem products and which has offered discounts to women looking for O.B. alternatives. “We’ve got thousands of women saying, ‘Okay, can we get a little more information, I mean, I put this inside my body once a month.’ As customers, women are for the most part captives.”

That could soon change—though O.B. makes for an unlikely catalyst. Originally German (it stands for “ohne Binde,” or “without pad”), O.B. has occupied a small portion of the market since arriving here in the 1970s, even though fans say it works better than other tampons. That’s partly because many women are uneasy using a product that has no applicator and requires insertion by fingertip. “Women don’t like to stick their fingers into their vaginas, especially, I think, during menstruation,” says Harry Finley, who for years ran his Museum of Menstruation out of the basement of his home near Washington. “God forbid you ever touch anything!” quips Elissa Stein, co-writer of FLOW: the Cultural Story of Menstruation, who argues some women see O.B. as a “badge of honour,” an indication they’re “more comfortable with their bodies. Everything else has applicators and all this other detritus that’s been developed to keep women from thinking they’re actually touching anything they don’t want to be touching.” The fem products industry has long promoted that sense of embarrassment—how else could they think yanking O.B. willy-nilly from shelves would generate no complaint?