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Vending machines are the latest tool for fighting opioid overdoses

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vending machines that have long been stocked with snacks are getting repurposed to distribute life-saving supplies to help fight the opioid epidemic.

A growing number of cities and local governments are making so-called “harm reduction” items, including the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, available for free via machines.

Interest in the approach is expected to grow after U.S. regulators recently approved Narcan, the leading naloxone brand, to be sold without a prescription. That switch allows the nasal spray to be stocked in convenience stores, supermarkets and vending machines.

Machine supplier Shaffer Distributing, which also sells arcade games and pinball machines, is one of the companies that has worked with U.S. communities to put the medication in machines even before the FDA's over-the-counter approval.

Marty Turner, the Columbus, Ohio, company’s director of vending sales, explains that many other items for promoting public health can be stocked and distributed this way. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do these machines work and what types of items do they dispense?

It’s a basic vending machine that we’ve modified to dispense the products that health departments, harm-reduction groups or other nonprofits are looking to get into the neighborhood.

We’ve worked on machines that dispense Narcan nasal spray, fentanyl testing strips, HIV testing kits, prescription disposal bags and then even some first aid kits and safe sex kits. Really anything that they’re looking to get into the hands of the public.

Q: How many have you sold?

We’ve probably sold close to 200 or more machines to the harm-reduction community. They’ve put them everywhere from public libraries to city hall. There’ve been a couple delivered to post offices, college campuses, sheriff's offices — almost anywhere that you have 24-hour public access.

Q: What’s the advantage of using a vending machine for this effort?

The vending machine just gives the end user the opportunity to walk up without being judged or having to have the money to purchase the product.

And in the case of Narcan, where it’s now an over-the-counter drug, we feel the vending machines are going to be just as popular and in-demand, because your next-door neighbor might not want to walk into Walgreens and have you standing in line behind him wondering ”OK, why is this guy buying Narcan?” It kind of takes away the stigma and offers 24/7 access.

Q: How much do these machines typically cost?

The naloxone machines sell for anywhere from $4,500 to about $7,400 for an outdoor machine. The outdoor machine is resistant to the rain and it has a compressor so that it can maintain its temperature in the summer that's safe for the product.

Q: Do users ever have to enter any personal information or other details when using the machine?

What we've found is that the more information you’re asking of the end user — for example, if you’re asking whether they’re male or female or their ZIP code or their age — then they're less likely to get a product.

We are working primarily with the folks that are looking for a low barrier. They'd just like to walk up to the machine, press the selection button and get the product. That just seems to be the best opportunity to get these into the hands of the people who need them most.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.