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Venezuela chides Procter & Gamble over sanitary pad prices

A view shows Caracas as seen from the top of the Central Bank building February 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Girish Gupta and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's socialist government has criticized U.S.-based Procter & Gamble for charging "criminal" prices for sanitary towels selling for a fifth of the monthly minimum wage.

The Cincinnati-based company has introduced a new brand to its Venezuelan market, Always Postparto, selling for 1,389 bolivars per pack.

That equates to $3.50 on the currency black market, or $220 at the government's strongest official rate.

"This is a criminal act against the Venezuelan people," Minister for Women Gladys Requena told reporters.

"It's time to denounce Procter & Gamble which is playing its part in the economic war against the people of Venezuela."

President Nicolas Maduro's government frequently blames foreign businesses and U.S.-backed political opponents for deliberately damaging Venezuela's economy via hoarding, smuggling and price-gouging.

Procter & Gamble, however, said in a statement that the Always Postparto sanitary towels were just one of a range of brands on offer, with its basic Always product going for 19.7 bolivars - nearly 7,000 percent cheaper. The Postparto pads are a specialized product for women who have recently given birth.

"P&G Venezuela's commitment during 65 years of history in the country has always been to offer the best products for Venezuelan consumers," said the statement, published in local media.

Wild price disparities have become common in Venezuela, where some products are subject to strict price controls but importers often peg others at the black market equivalent.

Many products are both absurdly cheap for those with hard currency using the black market to buy bolivars, and painfully expensive for the majority earning in the local currency.

Venezuela's minimum wage is 6,747 bolivars per month.

Annual inflation last year was 69 percent and economists expect the figure to be in triple-figures in 2015.

Venezuelans are suffering a severe economic crisis, with widespread shortages of basics, long lines common outside shops, and many now earning a living re-selling scarce goods at a premium.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)