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State-funded pregnancy test dispensers debut in Anchorage

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published February 26, 2015

Inside the women's bathroom at the Peanut Farm Bar and Grill, a dispenser hangs on the wall with a sign that reads: "Remember the last time you had sex?" The text below: "Take a pregnancy test before you drink tonight."

At the touch of a green button, a free pregnancy test drops to the bottom of the dispenser. Nearby are free condoms.

The Peanut Farm, on the Old Seward Highway, received the dispensers Tuesday as part of a two-year, $400,000 state-funded study pushed by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. The study aims to determine if posters warning women against drinking while pregnant work better when stuck on pregnancy test dispensers or simply framed on the wall, said David Driscoll, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Circumpolar Health Studies, which is leading the study.

"If we could just focus on a single message, that message would be, 'If you're pregnant don't drink, and if you're drinking use birth control,'" he said.

The study is part of a broader state initiative to decrease the number of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASD, a leading cause of mental disability and a preventable affliction. It is caused when a mother abuses alcohol during pregnancy.

The pregnancy test study gained notoriety last year after Kelly, a social conservative, said in an interview that it wouldn't include free contraceptives because "birth control is for people who don't necessarily want to act responsibly."

Driscoll said Tuesday that every bar or restaurant with a pregnancy test dispenser would also offer free condoms, which the state does not fund.

While the Peanut Farm has the first test dispenser in Alaska, Driscoll said he expects his team to install up to 19 more across the state in the coming weeks. They will also hang stand-alone signs displaying the same message in other businesses.

The businesses must serve alcohol, Driscoll said.

Travis Block, general manager at the Peanut Farm, said UAA approached him about installing a test dispenser. At first, Block said, he was hesitant. Then he heard about the cost of FASD and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Driscoll said the estimated lifetime cost for caring for a person with FASD is between $1.4 million and $1.5 million. For a person with fetal alcohol syndrome, it's closer to $2 million, he said.

"That's what got me," Block said. "It's a win-win. Good for the kids, good for the state, good for our community."

Block said the Peanut Farm tries to stay out of politics and, before deciding to accept a test dispenser, he considered whether it would offend customers.

"If anything, some people might find it humorous and others might find it educational," he said. "But offensive? I couldn't find an offensive part to it."

Alaska is not the first state to embark on a campaign involving test dispensers. A Minnesota nonprofit installed the dispensers in bars, convenience stores and a youth center. There are test dispensers in California and Ohio, Driscoll said.

What makes Alaska's effort novel is that for the first time researchers will attempt to gauge the effectiveness of the dispensers versus posters.

To measure this, the study encourages Alaska participants to visit a posted website or call a toll-free number and answer a survey in exchange for a $15 iTunes gift card.

Six months later, researchers will follow up with the participants to assess their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, Driscoll said. Ultimately, his team will present legislators with their findings and "they can make a decision: Do we want to allocate more funds or not?" he said.

Marilyn Pierce-Bulger, a nurse practitioner and owner of FASDx Services in Anchorage, said she applauds the study for its research component. But, she said, a lot of misunderstanding remains in Alaska about harmful levels of alcohol and overall sexual health. More information must be disseminated, she said.

"I think it's a small attempt," she said of the study.

Driscoll said he expects to roll out pregnancy test dispensers in communities including Kodiak, Nome and Dillingham. In total, bathroom goers across Alaska will have access to about 5,000 free pregnancy tests.

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