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Breath analyzers in bars warn of intoxication and are used as games


NEW ORLEANS -- Most drinkers laugh at first. Some are puzzled, some easily persuaded. But then, the idea of a drunk detector in New Orleans, the party capital of the country, is still new and kind of hard to figure.

"Everybody's drunk here all the time," said Pia Cornejo, a Tulane University student, as she sipped a chartreuse-colored cocktail called a Hand Grenade one night last week in a bar near Bourbon Street. "This is New Orleans. Who needs a test?"

Both welcomed and doubted, the barroom breath analyzer has arrived. It's a computerized vending machine that gauges drinkers' blood-alcohol levels. During the last several months, it's been installed at 25 bars in the Big Easy.

Probably with fewer giggles, it's also settled into taprooms from California to New York. The mayor of Honolulu announced recently that he'd give away six machines to get the idea going in his city. They cost #2,000 to $2,500 each.

The hope is that drinkers can find out how drunk they are before they climb behind the wheel of their cars. For the price of two quarters, this machine will talk straight to the tipsy.

Watch Kyle Melancon.

The son of a fire chief is swilling Red Stripe beer with a buddy at a popular Uptown New Orleans bar called The Boot, a large, noisy place with pool tables that caters to the college crowd. It's nearing midnight one rainy night when Melancon decides to check whether he's sloshed.

He strolls over to the Computerized Breath Analyzer, a boxy little machine with a bright screen that resembles a video game. Plucking a straw from a bin attached to the machine, Melancon deposits 50 cents and takes a deep breath. Quickly the machine starts blinking: "Blow, blow, blow."

Melancon exhales through the straw into a doughnut-shaped red plastic groove. Several seconds later, the machine flashes this message.

Legally intoxicated.

Melancon has tripped the digital reader to 0.12, decisively above the Louisiana legal standard of 0.10.

"I think it's a good thing," Melancon adds earnestly. "If it'll save one life, it's worth it. It takes the guesswork out of it."

Still, many who have parted with their silver for a blow at the breath analyzer are only playing around, they readily admit. Some nights, the breath analyzer is the most popular game in a barroom, they say.

Drinkers compete to see who is most loaded -- how drunk they are, how much drunker they can get.

"It's all for fun, as far as I can tell," said Deni Prima, a bartender at the Tropical Isle in the French Quarter, which draws tourists as well as a neighborhood crowd. "People laugh; they play it like a game."

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