Free Water at Gay Bars May Help Reduce HIV Rates

A study breathalyzed patrons leaving bars with readily available water and those without, and uncovered some interesting results.

A study conducted by UC San Francisco and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation shows a possible link between gay bars that install free self-service water stations and a reduction in HIV transmission rates.

Bars are a big part of gay culture, particularly in San Francisco. With The Lookout’s good views, two-for-one cocktails at Toad Hall and late-night dancing at The Stud, there are plenty of places to party, and lots of alcohol to be consumed; at least 57 of San Francisco’s 357 watering holes have predominantly gay patrons. And all too often with heavy drinking comes risky behavior, a possible factor in accidental HIV transmissions.

The solution may be in the water. If bars—particularly gay bars—install cups and water pitchers for patrons to self-serve themselves, extreme drunkenness can be reduced, and hopefully better decisions made at the end of the night, states the study.

The results were gathered with the help of two San Francisco bars, who opted in to installing water stations with a sign stating “Drink like a barman—have a drink, then water.”

Patrons could then opt in to being breathalyzed as they left the bar. “We tried to make it fun and playful, to engage patrons,” said co-investigator Jen Hecht, MPH. “If it is a long and boring experience, they’ll keep walking.”

The breathalyzer results were then compared with two “control” bars, who did not have free water stations. And the researchers’ theory was proven right: bar-goers who had easy access to water would leave more sober than their counterparts, who didn’t.

“These are exciting results,” said Hecht. “We saw significant differences in the reduction in blood alcohol levels and the percentage of people who reported binge drinking.”

But while alcoholics or binge drinkers are at special risk of contracting HIV, the problem isn’t confined to these men.”Even people with moderate alcohol intake experience a significant impact of drinking on sexual decision-making, condom use and partner choice,” said the study’s principal investigator Edwin Charlebois, PhD, MPH, a senior scientist at the UCSF Center for AIDS Prevention Studies.

And as to whether or not a reduced state of drunkenness actually decreases HIV transmission rates, well, the verdict is still out. The next step would be to quiz men about their activities after they left the studied bars, which requires much more work and resources.

“We want to explore it further,” said Hecht. “We know that alcohol consumption affects sex risk. And we know that what we did affects alcohol consumption. Does it connect? We need to look more closely.”

To support safe drinking habits, the AIDS Foundation has launched a fun “Cheers, Queers,” online quiz and safer drinking campaign that was informed by the study. If you’re interested, you can take it here.

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