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With a change in the look of some parts of Philadelphia, some people in Philadelphia have been placing blue lightbulbs in public restrooms or even on their front porches. Why? Here's Michaela Winberg of member station WHYY.
MICHAELA WINBERG, BYLINE: The bathroom at one popular Starbucks in Center City Philadelphia feels a little more like the inside of a lava lamp. The entire room is bathed in blue light, and it's not the only one. There are at least two other Starbucks in Philly that have traded their standard yellow bulbs for blue ones. Why the change of color? Blue bulbs have been deployed for years to deter people from using IV drugs. The glow supposedly masks the blue-tinted lines of veins beneath your skin, making it harder to find one and inject. Two years ago, Philadelphia's Health Department started giving out the colorful lights for residents to install on their front porches to prevent public drug use. Dennis Payne is president of the town watch in the city's Kensington neighborhood, a community where drug use is concentrated.
DENNIS PAYNE: A lot of people who have a blue light and really insist in putting it on, it is because they probably had one or two deaths on their front steps. That is not a rare thing in Kensington.
WINBERG: In 2018, this strategy became popular in the bathrooms of retail locations around the country, including some convenience store chains. The lights started popping up in Starbucks bathrooms in Philadelphia more recently, just about one year after two innocent black men were arrested in a different Philadelphia Starbucks. That incident didn't have anything to do with drugs. To prevent something like that from happening again, the coffee chain decided to open all its bathrooms to the public. Soon after, blue lights started appearing in Philly Starbucks stores. But the effectiveness of this strategy is questionable. Research shows that the bulbs are actually pretty unlikely to prevent drug use.
A 2013 study from the Harm Reduction Journal showed that blue lightbulbs probably won't stop people from using intravenous drugs. Instead, they'll likely still use as they originally planned, but because it's harder to see, they're more likely to suffer injuries like abscess or damage to their veins. Devin Reeves is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition. He's in recovery himself, and he's heard of this strategy before.
DEVIN REAVES: I remember thinking to myself that if I was still using drugs, that probably wouldn't keep me away.
WINBERG: Reaves works to implement evidence-based solutions to end the opioid epidemic. In a city struggling with addiction, he worries that the blue lightbulbs might actually cause more fatalities.
REAVES: People use in public spaces because they don't want to die. A lot of people think that people who use drugs have some kind of death wish, and that's not true. There's a reason somebody uses in a public bathroom because if they do overdose, they're hoping that they'll be found.
WINBERG: West Philadelphia resident Cecily Kellogg has been in recovery for 23 years. If she were still using, she doesn't think a blue lightbulb would make her stop.
CECILY KELLOGG: I'd say, well, that's weird, and then I would use. I think the reality is that regardless of restrictions put in place, there will be people who want to use drugs. And I think if that's their case, they should be able to do it in a safe and secure way.
WINBERG: A Starbucks spokesperson declined to comment for this story, but she emphasized the expectation that Starbucks customers, quote, "behave in a way that respects the community." For now, Philly's health department will keep handing out the blue bulbs until they run out. Then officials say they'll reassess the effectiveness of this strategy and determine whether they want to keep doing it.
For NPR News, I'm Michaela Winberg in Philadelphia.
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