No, you don’t need to worry about drugs in your kids’ Halloween candy. Here’s why
Multiple news reports over the past few weeks have claimed that something called rainbow fentanyl may be lurking in the Halloween candy that kids will pick up trick-or-treating this year. And while the substance — fentanyl pills or powder colored with bright dyes — is dangerous, it’s a myth that you’re likely to find fentanyl in Halloween candy, experts and officials say.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. About two-thirds of the 108,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States last year involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The hubbub around rainbow fentanyl began in August, when the Drug Enforcement Administration shared a press release warning that across the nation “brightly-colored fentanyl” was “being seized in multiple forms, including pills, powder, and blocks that resemble sidewalk chalk.” While the DEA said that their laboratory testing determined that the substance was not more potent than non-colorful fentanyl, the organization said they were concerned that the colorful versions of the drug were being used “to look like candy” and attract “children and young people.”
Multiple experts in the field of substance use and harm reduction told TODAY they were skeptical about the DEA’s claims, noting that colorful, illicit pills have existed for years and include substances like ecstasy, not just fentanyl. While the experts acknowledged that fentanyl is a public health problem, they said there’s no data showing that children and young people are being targeted.
“Multicolored pills are a thing in (legitimate) pharmaceuticals, and these probably emerged to mimic what are actual pills and how those look,” said Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and addiction medicine doctor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. He noted that a publicity photo shared by the DEA appears to show fentanyl disguised as oxycodone pills. “They don’t look like candy at all. … Colored drugs have been a thing for years, if not decades.”
The myth that parents have to worry about finding drugs in their kids’ Halloween candy goes back much further than the furor around rainbow fentanyl. According to Joel Best, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who has done decades of research on what he calls Halloween sadism, that myth is as old as modern Halloween celebrations.
“I knew a folklorist … who was born in the ’30s, and she reported hearing stories about people who would keep pennies on a skillet, and then pour hot pennies into the outstretched hands of trick-or-treaters,” Best explained. “The worry that somebody might be contaminating treats has been around for a while. It picked up speed in the 1960s, and by the late 1960s, it was pretty well-embedded.”
Best said that despite decades of fear, he has never found data that shows kids are being targeted with contaminated or dangerous Halloween treats.
“I have data going back to 1958 … and I cannot find a single case of a child killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating,” Best said. One exception is the 1974 case of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who distributed potassium-cyanide laced candy to his children in an effort to collect life insurance money. His 8-year-old son died, and O’Bryan was found guilty and sentenced to death. Best said that he considers this case an exception, because “that’s not what people are worried about when they ask whether it’s safe to go trick-or-treating.”
“This is the boogeyman,” Best said. “We’ve stopped believing in ghosts and goblins. We believe in criminals.”
Best said that he’s not surprised that this year, the concern is about rainbow fentanyl in Halloween candy: The urban legend of tainted treats seems to come after threats are reported in the news.
“If there’s a crime story in September, it will be linked to Halloween fears that year,” Best said, noting that similar fears arose in 1982 after several people were killed via tainted Tylenol in September that year. There was another round of concern about drugs being distributed in 2014, Best said, after Colorado legalized retail sales of recreational marijuana.
While the DEA has continued to warn about rainbow fentanyl and share press releases about seizures of the substance, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told NBC News’ Kate Snow that the administration does not believe that children are at risk this Halloween. The DEA declined to speak to TODAY for this article, instead referencing the interview.
“At this moment … we’ve seen nothing that indicates that this is going to be related to Halloween or that drug traffickers are putting it into Halloween candy,” Milgram said in the September interview. “If we ever had that information, I would put it out right away because I want everyone to know what we know.”
While there’s nothing wrong with being cautious this Halloween, Marino said that expending too much energy on fears of tainted treats can keep people from focusing on real ways to prevent fentanyl overdose deaths, including in kids. Drug overdose deaths have almost doubled in 14 to 18-year-olds between 2019 and 2020 and then another 20% in the first half of 2021, driven primarily by fentanyl, often packaged to look like prescription drugs, NBC News reported.
“Being scared of things that aren’t real is problematic, and we’ve seen that with the fentanyl touch overdose phenomenon, and the disastrous outcomes that has for everyone,” said Marino, referring to the concern that people can overdose on fentanyl just by touching it, which he said is not supported by research.
The biggest, real threat to kids’ health on Halloween? An injury from a car, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, make sure your child has reflective tape on their costume or bag, can see well through their costume, trick-or-treats in a group, sticks to well-lit roads and the sidewalk, only uses established crosswalks and never assumes they have the right of way when a car is coming.