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Valley News Dispatch

New Kensington Sheetz declares success with blue lights to deter drug use

Madasyn Czebiniak
| Friday, July 27, 2018, 4:45 p.m.
The blue lights in the bathrooms at the New Ken Sheetz are meant to curtail drug use by making it so heroin and opiod users can’t find their veins. (Madasyn Czebiniak | Tribune Review)
The blue lights in the bathrooms at the New Ken Sheetz are meant to curtail drug use by making it so heroin and opiod users can’t find their veins. (Madasyn Czebiniak | Tribune Review)
The blue lights in the bathrooms at the New Ken Sheetz are meant to curtail drug use by making it so heroin and opiod users can’t find their veins. (Madasyn Czebiniak | Tribune Review)
The blue lights in the bathrooms at the New Ken Sheetz are meant to curtail drug use by making it so heroin and opiod users can’t find their veins. (Madasyn Czebiniak | Tribune Review)

The dark blue lights installed in the restrooms of the New Kensington Sheetz to stop people from shooting up drugs seem to be working.

So much, in fact, that the Altoona-based chain decided to put them in another one of its stores in West Virginia.

”I think we had success in New Kensington … it’s really made a difference in the safety and security of our store in helping customers and employees avoid dangerous situations,” Sheetz spokesman Nick Ruffner said. “We felt comfortable expanding it to a second store.”

The Sheetz at 325 Freeport St. in New Ken’s Parnassus neighborhood and in Huntington, W.Va. are the only stores with blue light systems, which make difficult for somebody looking to inject heroin or an opioid to find their veins.

Ruffner said Sheetz continues to test the system at both stores, but at this point doesn’t plan to expand it to any other locations.

There’s no time frame for the test period because officials are seeing positive results, he said.

Ruffner couldn’t say why Sheetz officials picked the Huntington location for the second system, which was added in April. The company operates more than 500 stores in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina.

Heidi Clusta, a regular customer at the Sheetz, thinks the blue lights are a good idea. She said she feels safer with the blue lights.

”I get nervous coming down here sometimes in the evenings, and especially at night,” Clusta, 42, of Barking, Plum, said. “I’m here all the time. I know the workers. For their safety, for our safety, I think it will help deter them.”

Deborah Hickman, whose son Paul Musulin died from a drug overdose in Feb. 2017, doesn’t think the lights will stop the problem.

”By the time they’re addicted … they know their veins pretty well,” Hickman, 62, of New Kensington said. “I believe that they could almost do it blindfolded.

“If they need a fix, and they need it now, and they’re that bad, I don’t care where they’re going to do it, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

Experts, officials, weigh-in

Larry Davis, the business manager for New Kensington’s ambulance service, said installing the system was the “best thing (Sheetz) ever did.”

Davis estimated that the ambulance service responded to the Sheetz restrooms around 10 times in the six months before the blue lights were installed.

“We had a lot of overdoses (there) before, but we haven’t had one since they put them blue lights in,” Davis said. “At least in the bathrooms, anyhow. We had a couple out in the parking lot.”

The ambulance service, on average, responds to six overdoses a month.

“I think it’s a good idea, especially if you have a place where you’re having multiple calls to,” Davis said.

The Sheetz is in Westmoreland County, which has seen a continuing increase in overdose deaths since 2009.

In 2017, there were 193 confirmed overdose deaths, surpassing the 174 confirmed in 2016, according to data from the coroner’s office. As of July 15, the office reported 43 confirmed overdose deaths this year, with 28 cases still pending.

Some experts, while they question the effectiveness of the lights, commend the stores for the effort.

Amanda Dodd, a clinical manager with Gateway Rehabilition’s outpatient facility in Pine Township, said while the blue lights might stop addicts from shooting up in particular restrooms, they will still find ways to use drugs.

“People in active addiction will go to great lengths to use, even when barriers, such as these lights, are put in place,” she said. “I think that the lights may decrease the number of overdoses in these public restrooms, and it draws needed attention to this issue, but it won’t solve the problem. Treatment and reducing stigma will go much further to reduce the growing number of overdoses we are seeing.”

Tim Phillips, the executive director of Westmoreland County’s Drug Overdose Task Force, doesn’t think the blue lights are ultimately going to stop people from using drugs.

“Most people I have talked to can either feel for the vein or will move to the well-lit parking lot or another location to inject,” he said. “Those addicted are not going to wait. The fear of onset withdrawal is powerful. Addicts are desperate and will do whatever to avoid this.

“Unfortunately, many victims are found unresponsive in gas station restrooms, and blue lights are not an appropriate deterrent. I think their effort may be better focused to have Narcan on hand to reverse any (overdoses) on the premises and save a life.”

Other stores adding system

Sheetz isn’t the only Pennsylvania-based company that is using blue lighting to try to curtail restroom drug use. Lancaster-based Turkey Hill Minit Markets also has blue light systems in some of its 260 stores.

Read Hayes is a University of Florida researcher and director of the Gainesville, Fla.-based Loss Prevention Research Council, which devises methods to combat theft and violent crime at stores.

He said his group is in initial talks with retailers, including Turkey Hill Minit Markets, that are currently using the lights. In the future, the council could possibly pursue a research-based test on them.

Read said retailers have told him that they are seeing positive results from the lights. Store workers have reported that drug use in their stores has decreased, they’re excited, and their customers are happy, he said.

Attempts to reach a spokesman with Turkey Hill Minit Markets weren’t successful.

Jeff Lenard, vice president of Strategic Industry Initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), said he knows of only two businesses currently using the blue light system: Sheetz and Turkey Hill Minit Markets.

He said the point of the blue lights isn’t to eliminate drug use.

“It’s beyond the scope of these companies to stop drug use,” he said. “They just want to reduce it at their stores.”

Lenard said he has not heard from any stores concerned that they might become a location for drug use if others install blue lights. Davis said the New Kensington ambulance service hasn’t seen an increase in overdoses at stores or businesses near the Sheetz since the lights were added.

Art Barbus, the owner of House of 1,000 Beers in New Kensington, said he wouldn’t consider putting in blue lights, even though his gastropub and bottle shop are a short distance away from the Sheetz.

He said his eatery has public bathrooms, but the majority of people that use them are customers.

“If it gets to the point where we have people just coming in and using the bathrooms, we’ll stop that,” he said. “This is a restaurant. It’s not a public restroom.”

There are roughly 1 million retail outlets in the country, most of which have restrooms, Lenard said. Of those, 155,000 are convenience stores.

He said retailers that aren’t installing blue lights are still looking at ways to discourage drug usage in their restrooms such as redesigning them or greeting people who come through the door.

“Greeting customers to most people is being friendly, but for some others it’s saying that you are aware of them, which can limit illegal activities,” he said.

Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Madasyn at 724-226-4702, mczebiniak@tribweb.com, or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.

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