Fighting Misinformation about Halloween Candy Tampering

Halloween candy bars in a bowl
Photo courtesy Sebbi Strauch/Unsplash

By Heather Duncan, PhD

Oct. 28, 2022

If you are a parent, you may have heard rumors that “rainbow fentanyl,” or fentanyl pills that have been dyed to look like candy, might be lurking in your child’s basket this Halloween. You may even be planning to inspect your child’s hard-earned candy in order to discard anything that looks suspicious. And while there are many health-related reasons to limit your child’s intake of sugar this Halloween, public health experts say the rumors are unfounded and there is no reason to believe that anyone is planning to disguise the profitable black-market medication to distribute to trick-or-treaters.

The rumor began after the DEA issued a warning in August of 2022 that drug traffickers had begun disguising fentanyl as candy. However, the original announcement makes no mention of Halloween candy, and the panic has largely been stoked by unfounded statements made by Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker as well as conflicting messages issued by various public authorities rather than any actual evidence of a conspiracy.

Rainbow fentanyl is only the latest in a long history of Halloween candy panics going back more than half a century. This particular anxiety can be traced back to an op-ed piece published in the New York Times in 1970. In the article, the author claims to have been informed by the New York State commissioner of health of several incidents involving adults putting everything from razor blades, slivers of glass, needles, and poison into Halloween candy. Unfortunately, the piece was not fact-checked, and no researcher has been able to find evidence that any of the events cited in the op-ed ever took place.

Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has spent decades studying the phenomenon of Halloween candy panics. In all his years of study, Best has never uncovered evidence of intentional candy tampering. Though ironically, there was a case in which a Texas man poisoned his own son’s Halloween candy and attempted to cover up the crime by claiming that a stranger must have tampered with the candy.

So if there is no factual basis for them, why have these rumors continued to recirculate every Halloween for the past 50 years? In an interview with U.S.A. Today, drug historian David Herzberg of the University at Buffalo speculates that these fears are likely rooted in the history of drug and alcohol regulation in the U.S. According to Herzberg, Halloween candy panics feed into the narrative that there are some populations that simply do not become addicted to drugs unless induced to take them by immoral means. This narrative puts wealthy, white, suburban children into conflict with the racialized figure of the inner-city drug dealer—and, according to Herzberg, has had the unfortunate consequence of bolstering political support for harsher drug criminalization, making addiction a criminal matter rather than a medical and public health issue.

Jennifer Manganello, a health communication professor at UAlbany’s School of Public Health, says “I heard the rumors and did some searching to learn more. While I don’t see any specific threats for Halloween candy based on what I have found, I thought it was a good opportunity to talk with my children in general about drugs, and that they can always come to us if they have questions.” She emphasizes that parents can use these topics that get highlighted in the news as an opportunity to create open, age-appropriate communication with their children.

While it may be hard to argue with practicing a little extra vigilance on Halloween, it is important to remember that these rumors are yet another form of public health misinformation circulating in our media ecosystem. Not only do they stigmatize addiction, but they also distract from very real public health issues that do merit concern, such as the childhood obesity epidemic. So if you want to limit your child’s candy intake this year, by all means do so—but not because of concerns over drugs, poison, or tampering.