A researcher hired by CBC News visited 25 bars in the downtown core and asked for a glass of tap water.
In most cases, Karen McColl said she was given water at no charge. One bar even offered a serve-yourself pitcher.
But at four locations, bartenders said they could only sell her bottled water. They said they were not permitted to give out free tap water and charged $2.75 for each 500-millilitre bottled water.
The bars that refused to give out free water included Reflections Cabaret and the three facilities that make up the Dome complex on Argyle Street — the Dome, Cheers and Taboo.
“The answer from them was pretty consistent…. I said, ‘Is that the rule’ and they said yes,” said McColl.
Those same bars also charge people an admittance fee of up to $10.
Addiction counsellors recommend people alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic ones as a way to practise responsible drinking.
"I think it just slows down the drinking, you know, if you're having a glass of water in between, you're not drinking two drinks an hour, now you're drinking one drink an hour. It just gives your body a bit more time to process the alcohol,” said McColl.
Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, said he'd like all bars to offer free water, but the decision to charge often comes down to simple economics.
"At the end of the day, all they have to sell is the seat and if they have a number of people lined up in a row all drinking water, then obviously it's a cost to them and no revenue coming back," he said.
"There's a bit of a challenge there, so at least there's water available and that's the most important thing."
CBC News tried a number of times to reach the bars, but was unable to speak to the owners or managers of the establishments in question.
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