The persistent myth of drugged Halloween candy

Every year, the same grim warnings about drugged candy are issued with scant evidence to back up the fear campaign.

A few months back, I wrote about “The Dangers of Fentanyl,” a viral video shot and edited by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. To briefly summarize the video: while searching the trunk of a car, one of the sheriff’s deputies falls to the ground after (supposedly) touching fentanyl, a synthetic opioid; another deputy on the scene administers a dose of naloxone to the officer, leading to his full recovery. “The deputy nearly died after the exposure,” reads the on-screen text at one point.

The video was widely criticized for spreading misinformation about whether simply coming in contact with fentanyl could cause someone to overdose on it (the answer is no). Initially, however, a number of local (and a few national) news outlets ran stories that took the video entirely at face value. The video became something of a liability for the SDCSD, and was back in the news just last week when a candidate to replace the outgoing sheriff apologized for contributing to panic and the spread of misinformation.

The Present Age
Media mistakes in covering a police video illustrate unaddressed problems
Last week, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department posted a video of an officer supposedly overdosing from contact with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Titled, “The Dangers of Fentanyl,” the video is a dramatic 4-minute public service announcement promoting the importance of having…
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I don’t have much else to say about the SDCSD fentanyl incident, but its reemergence in the news reminded me of something else that seems to always come up this time of year: panic about Halloween candy.

We’ve all seen the news articles and the Facebook posts from local police departments warning parents to check their children’s Halloween candy for everything ranging from razor blades to drugs, and this year is no different.

With just a quick Google search for the words “Halloween candy police drugs” (not in quotes, FYI), I was bombarded with dozens of stories from just this year focused on THC-infused candy, ecstasy, and more. You can check out some of these examples here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here — and that’s just the tip of the candy corn-flavored iceberg.

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First things first: the “strangers might drug your kids’ Halloween candy” meme is mostly an urban legend. (There’s a 1959 incident involving a dentist who handed out 450 pieces of candy-covered laxatives to trick-or-treaters, making as many as 30 of the recipients sick. This tends to be pretty different than the stories we hear today.)

Carrying on: Since 1985, University of Delaware professor of sociology and criminal justice Joel Best has tracked reports of what he calls “Halloween sadism,” which is described as “the practice of giving contaminated treats to children during trick-or-treating.” The good news is that Best has “been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.” As it turns out, the handful of deaths that people try to attribute to Halloween sadism are almost always the result of either an accidental home-related death or a deliberate attempt by a family member to hurt or kill a child (the story of a 5-year-old Detroit boy died in 1970 after eating supposedly heroin-laced Halloween candy actually took the drug after finding it in a relative’s home; an 8-year-old boy from Texas died in 1974 after eating potassium cyanide-laced Pixy Stix was given the treat by his father, who had just taken out a life insurance policy on his son).

What interested me the most about Best’s research was his view on the media’s role in keeping this often irrational fear of Halloween sadism alive. As a media and cultural critic, I am always interested to understand how media affects our everyday lives. From his website (emphasis mine):

In reviewing the press coverage, I searched for reports which specified (a) where the incident had occurred, and (b) how the treat had been contaminated. Thus, a story reporting that a child in Boston had received a candy bar with a pin in it, would have counted as an incident. In reviewing these reports, a couple things stood out. First, there weren’t all that many incidents reported. Although the belief in Halloween sadism is widespread, I don’t think that media coverage can be blamed--there simply haven’t been that many stories. (The media do, however, often warn parents about the risk of Halloween sadism. Lists of recommended precautions routinely advise parents to inspect their children’s treats, in addition to making sure they can see through the eyeholes in their masks, etc.) Second, there were relatively few reports of children being injured by Halloween sadism; most of the reported incidents involved the discovery of a contaminated treat, but no injury. (This is confirmed by efforts to follow up on reports of Halloween sadism; researchers who have done this have concluded that a large proportion of these reports are hoaxes [Editor and Publisher 1973; National Confectioners Association et al. 1982].)

My takeaway here is that fear of contaminated/tampered with Halloween candy isn’t driven by reports of actual incidents, as Best found there to be few examples, but may be driven by the annual pre-Halloween warnings about this near nonexistent phenomenon. What does that tell us? For one, it should make both the police departments and the news outlets that publish these yearly warnings rethink their approach on this issue. There’s nothing wrong with putting out an annual recommendation for parents to take proper safety precautions around Halloween and trick-or-treating. In fact, it may be worth putting what emphasis there is on fear of contaminated candy instead on traffic safety recommendations, as Halloween does regularly represent the date with the highest number of juvenile pedestrian deaths (that 2019 article I linked to was written by Christopher Ingraham, who now writes the extremely good and thought-provoking The Why Axis Substack).

It’s a difficult time to work in media, and sometimes it’s easier to churn out a quick story so you can move on to the next one. I get it, I really do. That’s why year in and year out you probably notice a lot of the same types of stories being published. Around the new year, you’ll see stories about tips for keeping your resolutions; around Thanksgiving, you’ll see stories about how to coexist with family members you don’t get along with (or, quite the opposite, where you’ll see stories about how to “EPICALLY OWN YOUR LIBERAL NEPHEW” or “DESTROY YOUR TRUMP-SUPPORTING UNCLE WITH FACTS AND LOGIC”); and yes, around Halloween, you’ll see stories about being careful with your kids’ candy. The latter item often uses fear and outrage to get its message across, which just so happen to be emotions that drive online engagement.

And as the SDCSD fentanyl story so perfectly illustrated, news outlets should pause before running police department press releases without questioning them.