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The media and the Halloween ‘rainbow fentanyl’ scare

Suspected fentanyl pills inside boxes of candy were seized at the Los Angeles International Airport this month. (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department/AP)
6 min

As Halloween approaches, a scary new threat seems to be looming over trick-or-treaters: So-called rainbow fentanyl, a multicolored, candy-size version of the addictive and potentially deadly synthetic opioid.

In urgent news reports, law enforcement sources and elected officials have warned of the dangers the drug poses to children. “We’re coming into Halloween. Every mom is worried right now, ‘What if this gets into my kid’s Halloween basket,’ ” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview last month on Fox News, which has avidly pushed the story.

Senators from both sides of the aisle have expressed similar concerns, as has the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA Administrator Anne Milgram has called rainbow fentanyl “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction among kids and young adults.”

Yet the link between children and rainbow fentanyl — which differs only in its color and packaging from other fentanyl-based street drugs — appears to be theoretical at best. Its association with Halloween also may be specious, part of a long tradition of urban myths about poisoned treats such as razor blades in apples and cannabis-infused gummy bears, said Joel Best, a University of Delaware professor who studies such contemporary legends.

Best has yet to find a confirmed incident of a child being seriously injured or killed from contaminated trick-or-treat candy since he began compiling data on the topic in the mid-1980s.

“Rainbow fentanyl” didn’t take off as a media phenomenon until the DEA issued a news release containing Milgram’s comment Aug. 30. Before then, the topic rated just a few dozen scattered news stories, most of them from local news sources, and all of them starting in mid-August, according to the Nexis database.

Since then, news coverage has exploded, with nearly 1,400 print and broadcast stories, most of these published in the days leading up to Halloween.

It’s not clear how many children have been harmed by rainbow fentanyl. A database maintained by America’s Poison Centers that is composed of reporting from the nation’s 55 poison-control centers has recorded 70 cases so far this year in which someone under 18 unintentionally ingested nonprescription fentanyl — 60 of which involved children 2 or younger. But the database doesn’t record fentanyl poisonings by specific type, so it’s not known how many came from rainbow fentanyl alone.

A search of news reports since the drug was first mentioned in mid-August turns up only one suspected accidental case of rainbow fentanyl ingestion, this one involving a 2-year-old.

Some drug researchers say the drug’s colorful, candy-like form isn’t intended as a lure for children but as a disguise for smuggling purposes, and to differentiate it from other forms of fentanyl. They doubt dealers would give away such a relatively expensive drug to hook minors, who don’t have the means to become regular customers. “It’s illogical,” said Ryan Marino, a toxicologist and addiction specialist at Case Western Reserve University medical school in Cleveland. He adds, “For all intents and purposes, the rainbow fentanyl story is nothing more than a moral panic.”

That hasn’t stopped the onslaught of attention. In addition to Fox, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “CBS Mornings” and local TV stations have played up the rainbow-fentanyl-Halloween connection.

The subject has come up countless times on social media, as well; the conservative Heritage Foundation attempted to place the alleged threat in the context of inflation and its opposition to the Biden administration. “The price of Skittles jumped 42% from last year,” the think tank tweeted last week. “Not to mention the cartels are stuffing Skittles bags with deadly fentanyl. Happy Halloween from the Biden administration.”

In response, Skittles maker Mars Wrigley said, “We have very stringent quality and safety measures in place so all candy lovers can feel confident enjoying our products.” It sent a second statement a few hours later: “We understand how serious the fentanyl crisis is today and are deeply worried about illegal smugglers using everyday packaging to unlawfully traffic dangerous drugs and our security teams are cooperating with law enforcement.”

The story has gotten attention from both Democrats and Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), citing the threat to “younger and younger” children, urged Congress last month to add $290 million to the budget to combat fentanyl trafficking. Separately, a dozen Republican senators appeared in a “public service” video this month to sound the alarm.

“The powerful drug cartels are coming after your kids, your neighbors, your students, your family members and your friends,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) says in the video, while urging parents to “only let kids get candy from trusted neighbors, family and friends.”

News reports have picked up the same theme. “Good Morning America” cast its report on rainbow fentanyl as “a warning that parents need to hear with Halloween coming up.” On a segment of “CBS Mornings,” host Tony Dokoupil ad-libbed, “You imagine walking around on Halloween with kids, and they are picking up stuff on the ground. It looks edible. They put everything in their mouth.”

The Halloween-themed stories reflect the intertwining of real and perceived threats, said Best.

The real: Fentanyl is a dangerous drug, with the synthetic opioid accounting for about two-thirds of the 107,622 drug overdose deaths recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021.

Law enforcement officials have also made several high-profile seizures in recent months, including 12,000 suspected fentanyl pills hidden inside candy boxes labeled as SweeTarts, Skittles and Whoppers at Los Angeles International Airport this month. Photos released from the bust showed uniform blue pills, not rainbow, but the seizure still prompted a new round of Halloween warnings in the news.

While fears of Halloween candy poisonings have circulated since trick-or-treating became widely popular after World War II, Best said, the unusual factor this time may be the prominence of the people pushing the story. It’s rare for leading national figures, including elected officials, to be promoting a tainted-candy connection, he noted.

As it happens, Milgram, the DEA’s top official, recently clarified her initial comments about rainbow fentanyl and children, explicitly discouraging the link between the drug and Halloween.

“We are not seeing it in elementary schools,” she told Fox News last month. “We have not seen it with Halloween candy.”

The banner on-screen, however, delivered a different message: “Rainbow fentanyl warnings ahead of Halloween.”

Despite the concern, Best predicts that the news stories and rhetoric will subside once Halloween is over. “I suspect we won’t hear much about this on Nov. 1,” he said.