Open Access Open Badges Research

Not sold here: limited access to legally available syringes at pharmacies in Tijuana, Mexico

Robin A Pollini1*, Perth C Rosen1, Manuel Gallardo2, Brenda Robles2, Kimberly C Brouwer1, Grace E Macalino3 and Remedios Lozada2

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Global Public Health, Department of Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA

2 Patronato Pro-COMUSIDA, Tijuana, Mexico

3 Infectious Disease Clinical Research Program, Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA

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Harm Reduction Journal 2011, 8:13  doi:10.1186/1477-7517-8-13

Published: 24 May 2011



Sterile syringe access is a critical component of HIV prevention programs. Although retail pharmacies provide convenient outlets for syringe access, injection drug users (IDUs) may encounter barriers to syringe purchase even where purchase without a prescription is legal. We sought to obtain an objective measure of syringe access in Tijuana, Mexico, where IDUs report being denied or overcharged for syringes at pharmacies.


Trained "mystery shoppers" attempted to buy a 1 cc insulin syringe according to a predetermined script at all retail pharmacies in three Tijuana neighborhoods. The same pharmacies were surveyed by telephone regarding their syringe sales policies. Data on purchase attempts were analyzed using basic statistics to obtain an objective measure of syringe access and compared with data on stated sales policies to ascertain consistency.


Only 46 (28.4%) of 162 syringe purchase attempts were successful. Leading reasons for unsuccessful attempts were being told that the pharmacy didn't sell syringes (35.3%), there were no syringes in stock (31.0%), or a prescription was required (20.7%). Of 136 pharmacies also surveyed by telephone, a majority (88.2%) reported selling syringes but only one-third (32.5%) had a successful mystery shopper purchase; the majority of unsuccessful purchases were attributed to being told the pharmacy didn't sell syringes. There was similar discordance regarding prescription policies: 74 pharmacies said in the telephone survey that they did not require a prescription for syringes, yet 10 of these pharmacies asked the mystery shopper for a prescription.


IDUs in Tijuana have limited access to syringes through retail pharmacies and policies and practices regarding syringe sales are inconsistent. Reasons for these restrictive and inconsistent practices must be identified and addressed to expand syringe access, reduce syringe sharing and prevent HIV transmission.