A person holding a harm reduction kit.Share on Pinterest
Safe smoking kits help prevent overdoses and other health risks linked to substance misuse. Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
  • Harm Reduction grants help provide funding for services like the distribution of safe smoking kits.
  • Health experts say the goal of these kits is to help keep people who misuse substances as safe as possible until they can get help.
  • Providing safe smoking kits offers a path to engage those who misuse substances with needed recovery services that can save lives.
  • They also help to reduce disease in communities and reduce healthcare costs.

In December 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced it would be taking applications from various government, non-profit, and primary and behavioral health organizations for Harm Reduction grants, with promised funding expected to be around $30 million.

According to SAMHSA, the goal of the program is to increase access to services like safe smoking kits, which are aimed at helping prevent overdoses and other health risks linked to substance misuse.

However, conservative media outlets like The Washington Free Beacon and Fox News soon began reporting claims that the money would be used to provide free “crack pipes” to those who misuse substances.

This was followed by a group of lawmakers — including Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) — sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, questioning whether taxpayer money was being spent to purchase drug paraphernalia.

Here’s what safe smoking kits are, what they contain, and why it’s beneficial for a community’s health to fund them.

According to Dr. Michael Weaver, professor of psychiatry with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, the goal of safe smoking kits is to reduce disease in the community and save lives.

Kits can include clean pipes for smoking substances like cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin, he said. However, they are included to help people stay safe until they can recover from substance misuse.

“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,” explained Weaver. “This is similar to syringe exchange programs that distribute free clean syringes to people who inject drugs as a form of harm reduction.”

They can also include other items like steel wool, rubber bands, alcohol wipes, and hand wipes.

The steel wool acts as a filter for the pipe, said Weaver. Rubber bands can be wrapped around the pipe mouthpiece to help prevent burns.

Alcohol wipes and hand wipes are included to help clean the pipes if they need to be reused, especially by another person. This helps avoid the transmission of diseases.

Kits can also sometimes include naloxone, said Weaver. This medication can help save lives by temporarily reversing an opioid overdose, allowing enough time for emergency services to arrive.

Caleb Banta-Green, PhD, principal research scientist at the Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute, School of Medicine, University of Washington, said that providing safe smoking kits goes beyond just helping the individual. They help reduce harm to the community at large.

“Individuals make up the community and impact their families and neighborhoods,” said Banta-Green, “so improving health and stability for individuals directly improves community health and safety cumulatively.”

Banta-Green further pointed out that people who have smoking equipment are less likely to escalate to injecting drugs. Also, if they already inject, they will often transition to smoking.

This reduces harm because people are less likely to share equipment and pass along infections.

They are also less likely to get cuts or burns which can become infected.

Fewer people injecting also means fewer syringes that need to be safely disposed of, he added.

Banta-Green noted that offering smoking equipment is a way to provide “something for everyone” who misuse substances. It gives them a reason to come in and engage with staff and volunteers and develop a relationship with them.

In time, this can turn into them seeking other services, like healthcare, mental health care, and treatment for substance misuse.

“Individuals and communities benefit when people who use drugs, and often have serious health conditions, are engaged in services vs. adrift in society,” said Banta-Green. “Many who are smoking drugs are isolated and not connecting to any care and are dying at horrific rates.”

Finally, there are reduced healthcare costs to the community.

Banta-Green said the healthcare issues associated with drug use are “dangerous and costly,” leading to frequent emergency room visits.

“Providing care earlier in someone’s trajectory of substance use saves costs as they are less likely to have lost their familial, social, and financial resources, so their return to functioning in a healthy and independent way is easier, faster, and cheaper,” he explained.

Banta-Green concluded by saying, “It isn’t that safer smoking supplies magically fix everything. They provide valuable health-promoting services in the short term and valuable health-promoting relationships over the long term.”