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Can Offering Free Water at Bars Prevent HIV?

Can Offering free water in gay bars reduce hiv rates?

When patrons have free and quick access to water, they're more sober — and they make better decisions. 

Who knew you could solve a problem with something as simple as water?

A new study from University of California San Francisco and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation found that when men are offered free self-service water at gay bars they aren't as drunk when they leave. Researchers believe that could have a positive impact on HIV rates in the city  — because sober people make better choices about sexual health. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is associated with high-risk sexual behaviors and injection drug use, two major modes of HIV transmission. San Francisco researchers thought offering bar patrons easy access to water (without having to waiting in line) could help further reduce HIV rates in the city, which has already seen a dramatic decline in the past decade. (See our special report on San Francisco's HIV miracle here.)

The researchers put their theory to the test: Funded by the California HIV/AIDS Research Program and the National Institutes of Health, the team installed free water taps in two San Francisco gay bars. The free water was also advertised by posters of attractive bartenders holding glasses of water that read, “Drink Like a Barman — Have a Drink, Then Water.” 

The research team then took readings of the patron's alcohol levels as they were leaving the two test bars and compared them with the alcohol level of with patrons at two other bars who didn’t offer free water on tap. Turns out, the ones with unfettered access to water were more sober when they left the bar. 

In a city with nearly 60 gay or predominantly gay bars, could easy access to free water be what has been missing in the mission to decrease HIV rates? (Although San Francisco's rates drop another 17 percent between 2014 and 2015, they still have a ways to go to meet their goal of "Getting to Zero" by 2020).  More research needs to be done before we can say for sure if drinking more water and less alcohol prevents HIV. But we do know that pacing your alcohol ingestion has obvious benefits —  like reducing the number of alcohol related deaths.

"We want everyone to have a great night," said co-investigator Jen Hecht, MPH, senior director of Program Strategy and Evaluation at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, in a statement. "If people have a chance to pace their drinking, they have the opportunity to remember what happened in the morning. They can make choices they feel good about."

SFAF recently launched their safer drinking campaign Cheers Queers, which could dramatically expand the reach of their message. The Foundation is also offering San Franciscans a chance take part in a one-time free Cheers Queers counseling session to talk about their drinking — and be eligible to receive up to $60 in VISA gift cards.

Through their Stonewall Program SFAF offers such harm reduction counseling and additional support services to help queer men with drug and alcohol problems. They've also launched a weekly "Smart Drinking" social group for gay and bisexual men. Experts come and offer helpful tips, such as taking only a limited amount of cash when going out, and leaving the debit and credit cards at home. They also recommend sticking to beer or wine and skipping mixed drinks — which pack in a surpising amount of alcohol.

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