Will Pregnancy Tests In Alaska Bars Dissuade Moms-To-Be From Drinking?

May 10, 2015
Originally published on May 12, 2015 1:34 pm

"Remember the last time you had sex? Were you drinking? Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause lifelong problems for the child."

That's part of the warning on a poster in the women's bathroom at the Peanut Farm bar in Anchorage. It depicts the silhouette of a pregnant woman guzzling straight from a bottle. And it's affixed to a pregnancy test dispenser hanging on the wall.

The Peanut Farm and a few other bars in Alaska have begun offering the free pregnancy tests as part of a two-year, state-funded pilot project. (Condoms are also made available, though they're not part of this project).

Alaska has a high rate of women who binge drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health officials estimate that more than 120 children born in Alaska each year suffer from fetal alcohol symptoms ranging from mental and physical disabilities to impaired growth and organ damage.

The program aims to reduce the number of babies born with these symptoms. Supporters hope the tests will reach women early in pregnancy — a crucial time when they might not yet realize they're expecting.

The University of Alaska Anchorage is conducting the project, which runs through June 2016. David Driscoll, director of the university's Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies, who runs the study, says it will assess whether providing pregnancy test dispensers along with the warning posters in bar bathrooms is more effective at preventing fetal alcohol syndrome than simply displaying the posters by themselves.

"We're always looking for ways to try and improve our ability to provide information," Driscoll says.

So far, the dispensers have been installed in just four bars statewide, but Driscoll plans to add more soon. Women are encouraged to take an online survey when they use the dispensers.

Advocates say the $400,000 project could have huge benefits. The state can spend millions of dollars on health care, education and social services for a person with fetal alcohol syndrome over the course of his or her lifetime.

"A lot of women now understand that they shouldn't drink [while pregnant]," says Deb Evensen, an Alaska-based educator whose work on fetal alcohol syndrome prevention spans more than 30 years. "But a lot of people are still drinking in early pregnancy and before they know they're pregnant — and that can cause a lot of damage."

And, Evensen says, while people have known about fetal alcohol syndrome for decades, the message isn't always heard.

"This isn't new information and somehow it's missing big segments of our society," says Evensen. "And so I think all the ways that we can share the information in every direction is really a good idea."

The Peanut Farm's general manager, Travis Block, says he was wary at first about putting the pregnancy test dispenser in the women's restroom. But after the University of Alaska researchers helped him understand the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome in Alaska and the potential savings from preventing it, he became a supporter.

"People are going to drink, and that's what we're here to do is, you know, provide entertainment," he says. "But each person has to make up their own decision on what they want to do with their body."

He says maybe the tests will make some women think twice about how much they drink and what the consequences might be.

Aimee Rathbun, at the bar watching a college hockey game, says she believes most women would quit drinking if they learned they were pregnant. But in the Peanut Farm bathroom, she didn't notice the dispenser at first.

"So," she says, "I don't know if it would catch my eye to make me take a test before I drank."

But it seems the dispenser is catching the eyes of others. On that day, at least, it was empty.

Copyright 2015 KTOO-FM. To see more, visit http://www.ktoo.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

To reduce one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the country, bars in Alaska are now offering pregnancy tests. The pilot program is meant to reach women early in pregnancy, a crucial time when they might not know they're expecting. From member station KTOO, Casey Kelly has more.

CASEY KELLY: Inside the ladies room at the Peanut Farm bar in Anchorage, a dispenser advertising free pregnancy tests hangs on the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHIRRING)

KELLY: I press the button to get one of the self-administered urine tests, and on this day, they're all out. The front of the machine features a poster showing a silhouette of a pregnant woman drinking from a bottle. The text at the top says remember the last time you had sex? Aimee Rathbone says she didn't notice the dispenser at first.

AIMEE RATHBONE: So I don't know if it would catch my eye to make me take a test before I drank.

KELLY: Rathbone wonders who's the target audience? She believes most women will quit drinking when they find out they're pregnant.

RATHBONE: I think anybody that might suspect it wouldn't drink, except if they were addicted, you know? If they had a drinking problem, then maybe it wouldn't really change things.

KELLY: State health officials estimate more than 120 children born in Alaska each year have fetal alcohol symptoms, ranging from mental and physical disabilities to impaired growth to organ damage. Alaska also has a high rate of women who binge drink, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The University of Alaska is conducting the two-year study. Researcher David Driscoll says it will look at whether pregnancy test dispensers in bar bathrooms can be more effective at preventing fetal alcohol syndrome than posters by themselves.

DAVID DRISCOLL: Most of the strategies that we've used in the past have been relatively effective, but we're always looking for ways to try and improve our ability to provide information.

KELLY: So far, the tests are in just four bars statewide, but Driscoll plans to add more soon. He says women are already filling out an online survey they're asked to take when they use the dispensers. Between health care, education and social service costs, the state can spend millions of dollars on a person with fetal alcohol syndrome over the course of his or her time. So advocates say the $400,000 pilot project could have huge benefits.

DEB EVENSEN: A lot of women now understand that they shouldn't drink.

KELLY: Deb Evensen is an Alaska-based educator whose fetal alcohol prevention work spans more than 30 years.

EVENSEN: But a lot of people are still drinking in early pregnancy and before they know they're pregnant. And that can cause a lot of damage.

KELLY: Evensen applauds the pregnancy test as something new, even if people have known about fetal alcohol syndrome for decades.

EVENSEN: This is new information, and somehow it's missing big segments of our society. And so I think all the way that we can share the information in every direction is really a good idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT BAR NOISE)

KELLY: Back at the Peanut Farm bar, basketball and hockey play on several giant screens. General manager Travis Block says he was wary about putting the pregnancy test dispenser in the ladies room at first, but after learning about the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome in Alaska and the potential savings from preventing the disorder, he is a supporter.

TRAVIS BLOCK: People are going to drink, and that's what we're here to do is, you know, provide entertainment. But each person has to make up their own decision on what they want to do with their body.

KELLY: He says maybe the tests will make some women think twice about how much they drink and what the consequences might be. For NPR News, I'm Casey Kelly in Juneau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.