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Rainbow fentanyl candy is just the latest Halloween panic

No one is purposely trying to give kids drug candies.

A man wearing a Squid Game outfit gives candy to trick-or-treaters.
Despite accepting candy from a man in a Squid Game costume, this child is probably okay!
Isaac Wong/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Of the many urban legends associated with Halloween, none may be as persistent — or as terrifying to adults — as someone killing children via candy. The guiding logic seems to be that there’s nothing in this world that children love more than sweets and nothing murderers love more than murder. So, year after year, stories pop up about Halloween candy filled with razor blades, cyanide, pins, and even drugs.

The 2022 version of this phenomenon is “rainbow” fentanyl. Fentanyl is a drug intended to treat severe pain, but when abused, its potency can cause death. In August, the DEA described this whimsical-sounding, multicolored version of the synthetic opioid as “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.” States like Florida and West Virginia have already issued warnings to parents about the danger that colorful fentanyl (sometimes in candies like Skittles) poses to children. Senate Republicans have even put out a PSA warning about the danger. There are also a few media outlets relentlessly following the story.

The thing about urban legends, though, is that they’re based on our fears, not on truth.

As my former colleague German Lopez pointed out in 2018, stories about adults killing children through laced candy go back to the 1950s, but there’s never been any evidence or data suggesting that this is a real problem. Lopez wrote:

The closest thing to a case like the ones so many parents worry about comes from 1974. Back then, an 8-year-old died after eating Pixy Stix laced with cyanide. But the culprit wasn’t a stranger handing out candy to trick-or-treaters; it was the child’s father, who apparently did it to get life insurance money.

Joel Best, the nation’s leading expert on Halloween candy, told Vox at the time that the idea of a trick-or-treater being killed or seriously injured by candy was “unlikely” and that fears were overblown.

In 2018, Best chalked those fears up to our relative safety and the desire to hold onto it, saying: “We live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios. Here we are; we have safer, healthier, longer lives than people in any other point in history. And we are constantly imagining that this could all fall apart in a nanosecond. … I think that what happens is we translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children.”

A candlelight casts a jack-o-lantern-shaped shadow.
Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 2022, things feel perhaps even more precarious than in 2018. Granted, the United States is in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic, and the rise of fentanyl being added to other drugs, including cocaine, has caused a rash of overdoses. Over the last few years, however, there has been a boom in misinformation about fentanyl in particular, experts say, mainly in many misleading stories and headlines about police and fentanyl skin exposure. It might make sense, then, that these fears about Halloween candy are being expressed loudly and by more prominent figures, like politicians and certain media personalities. That doesn’t make them more real.

There are also logical fallacies at work. The idea of drug dealers targeting children with deadly doses of rainbow fentanyl doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. First of all, children don’t have money, and money is an important aspect of a drug deal. And secondly, drug dealers would like to keep their client base alive since that’s their source of income. Killing people, children included, is bad for business.

“It’s illogical,” Ryan Marino, a toxicologist and addiction specialist at Case Western Reserve University medical school, told the Washington Post. “For all intents and purposes, the rainbow fentanyl story is nothing more than a moral panic.”

There are things to worry about this Halloween, like how pedestrian fatalities are much higher on the holiday, but rainbow fentanyl for kids probably isn’t one of them.

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