Fact Check

Are NYC Officials Distributing Free 'Crack Pipes' in Vending Machines?

In June 2023, New York City launched its first public health vending machine as part of a drug harm-reduction initiative.

Published June 7, 2023

 (Spencer Platt/Staff, Getty Images)
Image Via Spencer Platt/Staff, Getty Images
Claim:
As part of a drug harm-reduction initiative, New York City launched a vending machine program offering free "safer smoking kits" that include drug paraphernalia, such as bubble pipes for smoking meth and opioids.

On June 6, 2023, claims began to spread on social media platforms that New York City officials were putting "free crack pipes" in vending machines. The claims emerged the same day that the city launched its first public health vending machine as part of Mayor Eric Adams' plan to reduce overdose deaths by 15% by 2025. 

We found the claim about crack pipes on social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, and Facebook. "NYC unveils vending machines with free crack pipes and drug kits," a Twitter user posted on June 6, 2023.

Tabloids and right-leaning publications like the Daily Mail, Fox News, and the Washington Free Beacon also published articles repeating the claim. 

We can confirm that New York City's public health vending machines do offer an array of items for free that are meant to reduce the harms caused by drug use. Among those are safer-smoking kits that include bubble pipes — glass pipes used for smoking methamphetamines and opioids, such as fentanyl.

It remains unclear as of this writing whether the kits also contain literal crack pipes (also called stem pipes), which are more often used to smoke crack cocaine, but the differences between drug pipes tend to be glossed over in public discussions and are not crucial to this fact check. We reached out to the New York Department of Health and the nonprofit group overseeing the vending machine program, Services for the Underserved, with questions, and will update this article if we learn more.

We found photographs of the actual vending machines on the Services for the Underserved website. One of the pictures showed a product labeled "smoking kit," the label of which said it contained a bubble pipe, a mouthpiece, and lip balm. 

The label also had a URL printed on it, which we found belonged to a company called Smoke Works. The website of Smoke Works said the company's mission is to "help harm reduction programs reach more people with safer smoking supplies." All three items listed in the safer-smoking kit were found on that website in its supply catalog

At the time of this writing, Smoke Work's website said it did not receive any federal, state, or local government funding. It also said that the company cannot sell its products to consumers. When we clicked on one of the items in the catalog, the website directed us to a form to fill out to apply to be a customer that required a program name and a description of services provided. We reached out to the company, which said it doesn't comment on customer relationships.

According to a January 2022 brief from the University of Washington, the items found in these smoking kits are normally considered to be "safer smoking supplies:"

Drug smoking supplies distributed by harm reduction programs typically include glass stems and pipes used to inhale smoke or vapors, plastic mouth pieces to prevent lip burns, and items to insert or hold the drug in place such as screens, wire, and wooden push sticks. 

The University of Washington brief also mentioned lip balm:

Many programs also distribute alcohol wipes to clean hands and pipes and lip balm to prevent cracking; both items reduce the risk of HIV and hepatitis C.

According to North Carolina Health News, people have less chance of overdosing if a drug is smoked rather than injected. Dr. Michael Weaver, professor of psychiatry with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, told Healthline in June 2022 that clean pipes are included in safer-smoking kits to help people stay safe until they can recover from substance misuse. He told the publication:  

Clean pipes prevent the need to re-use pipes that may be contaminated with body fluids (saliva, blood, mucus, sweat, etc.) that can transmit pathogens such as hepatitis C virus, HIV, and other infections. This is similar to syringe exchange programs that distribute free clean syringes to people who inject drugs as a form of harm reduction.

What is lost in the hubbub over safer-smoking kits for addicts is the fact that New York City's public health vending machines provide more than just "free crack pipes." According to Services for the Underserved, they also include COVID-19 tests, masks, feminine hygiene products, and condoms. Naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, will also be available in the vending machines, according to a news release we found on both the websites for the New York Department of Health and Services for the Underserved.

Sources

"Apply." Smoke Works Harm Reduction, https://smokeworkspipes.com/pages/apply. Accessed 7 June 2023.

Daut, Peter. "Free Needles and Crackpipes: In-Depth Look at Palm Springs' Harm Reduction Program." KESQ, 19 Apr. 2023, https://kesq.com/news/in-depth/2023/04/18/free-syringes-and-crackpipes-in-depth-look-at-palm-springs-harm-reduction-program/.

Donnelly-DeRoven, Clarissa. "NC Experts Explain How Safe Smoking Kits Reduce Harm from Drug Use." North Carolina Health News, 23 Feb. 2022, http://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2022/02/23/nc-experts-explain-how-safe-smoking-kits-reduce-harm-from-drug-use/.

"Health Department Launches NYC's First Public Health Vending Machine." SUS, https://sus.org/health-department-launches-nycs-first-public-health-vending-machine/. Accessed 7 June 2023.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Naloxone DrugFacts." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 11 Jan. 2022, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/naloxone.

"Pipes." Smoke Works Harm Reduction, https://smokeworkspipes.com/collections/pipes. Accessed 7 June 2023.

"Public Health Vending Machine Media Coverage." SUS, https://sus.org/public-health-vending-machine-media-coverage/. Accessed 7 June 2023.

Russell, Erin, et al. "A Scoping Review of Implementation Considerations for Harm Reduction Vending Machines." Harm Reduction Journal, vol. 20, no. 1, Mar. 2023, p. 33. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1186/s12954-023-00765-2.

"Safe Smoking Kits: Here's What They Are and How They Help." Healthline, 16 June 2022, https://www.healthline.com/health-news/safe-smoking-kits-heres-what-they-are-and-how-they-help.

"Safer Use Supplies." Caracole, https://caracole.org/safer-use-supplies/. Accessed 7 June 2023.

Samson, Sam "'This Is a Win:' Manitoba Harm Reduction Advocates Support Motion to Decriminalize Small Amounts of Drugs | CBC News." CBC, 29 Jan. 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-decriminalize-small-amounts-drugs-harm-reduction-1.6331793.

San Francisco AIDS Foundation. "February Updates from Syringe Access Services." San Francisco AIDS Foundation, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.sfaf.org/collections/status/february-updates-from-syringe-access-services/.

Singh, Samyukta, et al. Distribution of Safer Drug Smoking Supplies as a Public Health Strategy. Jan. 2022, https://adai.uw.edu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/SaferSmokingBrief_2022.pdf.

"Smoke Works Harm Reduction." Smoke Works Harm Reduction, https://smokeworkspipes.com/. Accessed 7 June 2023.

"Team." Smoke Works Harm Reduction, https://smokeworkspipes.com/pages/team. Accessed 7 June 2023.

Izz Scott LaMagdeleine is a fact-checker for Snopes.