Teenage girls are being given the contraceptive pill without a prescription for the first time, in a pilot scheme that could be rolled out nationwide.
Girls aged 16 and over in areas with the highest teen pregnancy rates can ask for the pill from their local pharmacy.
But critics warn that there is no evidence that giving out contraceptive pills over the counter will help cut teen conceptions.
They say the move could encourage girls to engage in promiscuous behaviour.
A doctors’ group has described the scheme as “pouring petrol on the flames”, while an MP said the posters advertising it are “sending entirely the wrong moral message”.
The concept was first announced by the Government a year ago. The health minister at the time, Lord Darzi, backed the new plan as “probably the easiest route from a patient’s perspective”.
Local health professionals have been working on the controversial scheme in inner-city areas such as Lambeth and Southwark for the last year.
So far three pharmacies have been allowed to offer the pill to girls.
One pharmacy is advertising the scheme using bright eye-catching posters which have been likened to adverts for washing powder.
Jo Holmes from Southwark Primary Care Trust said the scheme was likely to appeal to young girls previously deterred from getting contraceptive advice.
She said: “They may already go to the pharmacy to buy cosmetics and medicines.
“In the GP surgery they sometimes worry they might bump into a neighbour or a member of their family.”
Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe and this latest move is viewed as another Government effort to curb teen conceptions.
The Government’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy aims to cut teen conceptions in half by 2010 but is likely to fall desperately short of this target.
The Government’s strategy has been widely criticised by family values campaigners and academics.
They say that handing out contraceptives and information about sex to young people is unlikely to cut conceptions, and may increase risky sexual behaviour.
Commenting on the pilot scheme, Mark Haughton from the Christian Medical Fellowship said: “I’m not aware of any evidence that this is going to be effective. It may be pouring petrol on the flames.
“Doctors and pharmacists are at the end of the chain. What we need to do is work on the whole area of relationships, that is what is really effective.”
Nadine Dorries MP said: “The poster looks as though it’s designed to market something as benign and attractive as sweets, sending entirely the wrong moral message.
“There is a desperate need to curb teenage pregnancies, but this is the wrong way to go about it.”
Last year Prof David Paton of Nottingham University criticised the Government’s multi-million pound Teenage Pregnancy Strategy.
He said: “There has been a tendency for the Government’s teenage pregnancy strategy to focus on creating schemes where teenagers can get the morning after pill or other forms of family planning at school or clinics.
“The danger with this sort of approach is that it can lead to an increase in risky sexual behaviour amongst some young people.
“There is now overwhelming evidence that such schemes are simply not effective in cutting teenage pregnancy rates.”