MANILA - Men buying flowers on Saturday for Valentine's Day were given something else for the weekend in the Philippines, Asia's staunchly Roman Catholic outpost -- free condoms.
The health department set up 2 tents and booths carrying the slogan "Are You Sexually Active?" at Manila's Dangwa wholesale flower market on the day before St. Valentine's.
They also handed out leaflets promoting them as safeguards against sexually transmitted diseases with the "Be Safe Always, Valentine" packs of condoms.
Some men laughed openly as they accepted the handouts from government health workers, led by the department's chief epidemiologist, Eric Tayag.
But President Gloria Arroyo's government, wary of the dominant church's opposition to birth control, promptly distanced itself from the promotion.
"Our policy on condoms is very simple: We do not give out condoms for contraception," Arroyo spokesman Ricardo Saludo said on government radio.
"If they want to use it for other matters, that is none of our business."
Tayag however defended the promotion, saying the government needed to act to check the rising number of AIDS infections in the country.
"Most people who have AIDS don't even know they already carry the virus," he told reporters.
He suggested there was a low degree of public awareness of the danger, since "some people seem to think that you can get the virus through kissing."
Last month, a government study showed that one in three newborns in the Philippines is unwanted or unplanned as the country struggles with a population explosion and the Church's opposition to birth control.
The Philippines population is projected to reach 94 million this year, up by more than five million from the 2007 census count.
The Roman Catholic Church forbids artificial birth control and has consistently opposed population control programmes. As a result, the government is reluctant to fund family planning schemes.