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C-Store Opioid Struggle Continues

New research efforts and tools are helping c-store retailers battle the drug epidemic
Photography courtesy of Heads Up Lock Co.

CHICAGO -- Since CSP first reported on the opioid abuse crisis in the spring, businesses, legislators and industry advocates have continued to examine a problem that claimed more than 42,000 lives in the United States in 2016 [CSP—May ’18, p. 30]. In August, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation that includes more than 70 provisions aimed at combating the opioid crisis  with new research and resources. And industry groups are starting to take notice: NACS has begun having conversations with community-focused groups on opioid abuse.

For c-stores that are struggling to protect their customers, employees and livelihoods, there are some resources available to help, from discussion groups and ongoing research to technology that deters drug use in the store. Here are some of the latest efforts to get the c-store industry in front of the battle against opioid abuse.

Researching the Problem

The problem and prevention of on-site opioid use at stores among customers and employees is only now beginning to be researched and understood.

One group tackling the problem is the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) at the University of Florida in Gainesville. LPRC was formed 18 years ago by 10 retail chains hoping to find evidence-based science to support loss-prevention solutions and decisions. Today, more than 140 companies are members, including about 60 retail chains in the c-store, grocery, dollar and drug channels; about 70 security technology companies; and manufacturers with products that are often stolen to monetize, such as Procter & Gamble, Bacardi, Coty and Duracell.

The retailer members account for more than 112,500 stores representing $2 trillion in sales. They include c-store chains such as 7-Eleven Inc. and Turkey Hill Minit Markets. LPRC has seven working groups covering issues from violent crime to retail fraud, as well as researchers working on as many as 60 projects at any one time.

Previously, the opioid crisis in c-stores “was not on our radar screen,” says Read Hayes, research scientist at the University of Florida, a criminologist and the director of the LPRC. One of the LPRC working groups began discussing the issue of opioid use in stores, especially bathrooms, and began reviewing literature on the topic and sharing ideas to stop it.

“We are at a deficit of information on the topic,” Hayes says, pointing out that the only article the group came across that identified and examined the issue was CSP’s May 2018 cover story.

While the working group was still conducting that literature review, the media contacted Hayes about the use of blue lights to deter opioid use in store bathrooms. This was in response to reports earlier this year that retailers such as Sheetz Inc., Altoona, Pa., were experimenting with the blue lights, which make it more difficult for potential users to find a vein to inject drugs into. LPRC member Turkey Hill Minit Markets has also been testing them.

“Operators can be lulled into a false sense of security with the blue lights.”

The group’s process in evaluating a possible solution such as blue lights is scientific, aiming to describe the mode and the mechanism of action—or how and why something makes some behavior too risky. For example, blue lights are designed to disrupt and to make drug use more diffi cult so that a store bathroom is a less desirable place, Hayes says. The potential benefi ts of a working solution are real.

“You’ve got people injecting illicit drugs in your restroom,” says Hayes. “Now you could have blood-borne pathogen exposure, you could have [sharp needles]—and several [retailers] have found dead bodies. That may be life-changing to your employees and to others. And there is other crime that tends to come with drug use, other theft and the settling of drug disputes, so there are a lot of reasons you don’t want the activity on your site.”

The group is trying to better understand how to use blue lights, their intended effect and how to adjust their use to avoid harming customers or drug users. “You want fewer onsite injections going on, for instance,” Hayes says. “How do we accomplish that?”

Tech Tools

The efficacy of blue lights is up for debate. Hayes cites a study by Canadian researchers that found the blue lights are not eff ective and promote systematic discrimination against drug users.

“But when you look at the data, it looks like over 50% of the respondents said they didn’t go to places that used the [blue light] method,” he says. “If you found a pharmaceutical that was benefi cial to 50% of the patients or more, that is highly efficacious.”

Jimmy Hinshaw, vice president of video intelligence solutions for FireKing Security Group, New Albany, Ind., a loss-prevention and security company, has spoken to experts who say blue lights are not a magic bullet. Users are apt to use their phone lights or pack a fl ashlight in their injection kits instead.

“Operators can be lulled into a false sense of security with the blue lights,” Hinshaw says. “They’ve really got to think about the lights as part of a broader strategy.”

This year, FireKing released a new cloudbased platform that helps arm retailers with more tools to fight back against the crisis. The elIVate Video Intelligence software gathers input from cameras, point-of-sale systems, sensors and smart safes.

“A sensor lets operators know someone walked into the bathroom, and retailers can instantly review the last clip,” Hinshaw says. “It gives them some insights into what is happening in their stores.” The product can be linked to a panic button, which sends a video to law enforcement so they can learn more about the situation before arriving at the scene. Storing videos in the cloud can also help off-site operators ensure team members follow safe procedures immediately after an incident.

Because of the opioid crisis, more clients have asked Hinshaw about cameras that can detect customers who have irregular heart rates and blood pressure from drug use. However, “from a cost and reliability standpoint, those products aren’t here today,” he says.

“There is other crime that tends to come with drug use ... so there are a lot of reasons you don’t want the activity on your site.”

Some operators are looking to install lights outside bathrooms to ward off drug users. Earlier this year, Lisa Dell’Alba, president and CEO of Square One Markets Inc., Allentown, Pa., told CSP she was working with an alarm company to design lights installed outside the bathroom, signaling that a bathroom is occupied. Dell’Alba sought out the technology to create a more seamless customer experience, as well as to deter any unsavory activity in the bathroom.

Bruce Roberts, founder of Heads Up Lock Co., Los Gatos, Calif., engineered a bathroom sign with a light that glows red or green to signify occupancy. As a person living with quadriplegia, Roberts developed the device three years ago to prevent unnecessary and frustrating trips to a bathroom that’s in use. The lights start at $189 and can be installed with the help of a handyman.

Today, the device is growing in popularity. The system is in coffee shops, shopping malls and even the stock exchange floor of One World Trade Center. Some Heads Up Lock Co. clients have purchased the lights to prevent drug use in bathrooms, he says, and they’ve reported that the lights help drug users think twice.

“They’ll go someplace that’s an easier target or less conspicuous,” Roberts says.

Reluctant to Talk

Despite the prevalence of the problem, retailers are still reluctant to talk about opioid use in their stores. Representatives from Turkey Hill and Sheetz did not respond to CSP requests for comment.

Awareness is “in its early days,” says Hayes of LPRC. “While this phenomenon has been growing, my sense is that it grew much more rapidly, and people are realizing how broad the effects are.” (See “Taking Care of Business,” below.)

For example, retailers are victimized by those committing theft and violent crime in part to get money to buy more drugs. “Boosters,” or professional shoplifters, are not new; they have been around as long as there have been injectable drugs, Hayes says. But for those who are using opioids, “their brain is saying, ‘I’ve got to have this, and I can either steal it or steal something to get money to get it really quickly.’ ”

Another industry loss-prevention group—the Loss Prevention and Safety Networking Group (LPN), Chandler, Ariz.—has also been examining the opioid issue. (See sidebar, below.)

Coordinator Gary Cartwright observed that, in the group’s most recent survey of its members, candy surpassed cigarettes as the top loss category by dollar sales. He cited two reasons behind the trend: the drug-abuse crisis and organized crime. “For drug addicts, they need sugar, they need candy, so they will steal it for their habit,” he told CSP in July.

One of the more surprising characteristics of the drug epidemic is how many young and previously healthy and employed people have gotten addicted after being prescribed opioids because of injuries or surgeries. “The speed of that spread has been phenomenal,” Hayes says.

With loss-prevention experts and retail-industry associations starting to take a closer look at the problem, there may be more willingness to talk about it down the road.

LPRC works closely with the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Food Marketing Institute. It also has had discussions with NACS about how the two groups can work together on the issue.

“We’re exploring ways in which NACS and its members can be more engaged with the organization,” says Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for Alexandria, Va.-based NACS. Opioid abuse, as well as topics such as human trafficking and disaster relief, are becoming part of its discussions with members.

“Some of these discussions have moved along faster than others in terms of developing programs or announcing programs,” Lenard says, “but we continue to stay very engaged with groups on how we can help the industry make a difference in the communities we serve.”

Taking Care of Business

The fallout from the opioid crisis has forced c-stores to act—fast. Here are some of the ways retailers have told CSP that they are responding to the issue. To prevent users from hiding drugs in stores:

  • Eliminate access to electrical outlets with removable plates.
  • Schedule more frequent outsourced deep cleaning, especially above ceiling tiles.
  • Invest in more cameras and facial recognition.

To prevent drug use and overdoses on premises:

  • Keep bathrooms locked or add bathroom access codes, and install movement-detection sensors.
  • Increase cleaning schedules.
  • Form stronger relationships with police officers and first responders.
  • Donate money to local rehabilitation and education causes.

To protect employees:

  • Train on safe trash-handling procedures to avoid needle sticks.
  • Provide long pickers to clean up needles and supply team members with puncture-proof gloves.
  • Mount sharps disposal containers in bathrooms.
  • Devote a portion of team meetings to opioid crisis education.
  • Develop an overdose action plan.

The State of Drug Use in C-Stores

The Loss Prevention and Safety Networking Group (LPN), Chandler, Ariz., an organization of loss-prevention, security and safety professionals in the c-store industry, polled attendees of a recent training meeting about the state of drug abuse in their stores. Their responses show the epidemic is far from over—and seems to be intensifying. For example:

  • One hundred percent of retailers saw evidence of drug use at their stores.
  • In the past year, all the retailers have seen increasing evidence of drug use in their stores, such as used needles. One-quarter of retailers have seen customers under the influence, and one-half have dealt with restrooms being occupied for long periods of time. Some have even dealt with people overdosing in their parking lots.
  • To address the issue, retailers have tried locking restrooms or using a buzzer to allow access, or testing blue lights.
  • About 30% of participants do pre-employment drug testing, and roughly 30% said they drug test current employees at random. Most test for drugs after an accident at the store where they suspect use, but most do not test for marijuana because of its widespread use.

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