CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Atop a candy vending machine in Tom Jacobs' barber shop sits a glass jar with freebies for customers. But it's not filled with free combs or candy.
Jacobs is giving away condoms.
Customers at LaPorsha's Hair Studio are invited to take as many as they need -- part of a program adopted by hairstylists in five North Carolina counties to combat AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases among blacks.
''The barber shop is the kind of place where the guys come in and talk about what's really happening in their lives,'' said Jimmy Wiggins, a LaPorsha's customer. ''It's not like church where you hold back a bit. We really let it all hang out here.''
Jacobs said that's why he joined the program.
''There's some people who won't listen. They just want to come in and talk about how many 15-year-olds they knocked up,'' he said. ''I want them to know, 'If you're doing it, be careful.'''
The nearly 10-year-old Positive Connections program, which operates only in North Carolina, aims to train 100 barbers and beauticians in the Charlotte area over the next year. If all goes as planned, they would counsel 300 men and women each week and distribute 1,000 condoms and pamphlets a week.
Statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention show blacks, who make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, represent 37 percent of the AIDS cases; the CDC estimates one in 50 black men and one in 160 black women are infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.
The five counties participating in the program -- Charlotte's Mecklenburg County and Durham, Chatham, Wake and Alamance counties -- also have the distinction of being among the national syphilis leaders. In Mecklenburg County, there were 157 cases last year, and 133 were black. Of the county's 1,901 HIV cases -- the precursor of AIDS -- 1,549 involve blacks.
Jacobs and about two dozen black barbers and hair stylists attended recent training sessions on counseling customers about prevention and safe sex, giving away free condoms and making referrals.
As customers began arriving one morning this week, Jacobs put down his scissors and comb and walked over to his TV and hit the play button on the video cassette recorder. As the narrator recited the grim statistics, the banter in the shop fell to a whisper.
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