Even though drug policy experts say kids are likely not the target of “rainbow fentanyl,” multiple TV news outlets are uncritically reporting on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s recent warning about the multicolored, candylike version of the highly addictive drug.
In late August, the DEA claimed it was seeing an “alarming” trend of rainbow fentanyl as “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.”
Though rainbow fentanyl potentially poses a threat to casual drug users, drug policy experts, such as Dr. Ryan Marino, who has reported on fentanyl for over five years, agree that there is little to no evidence that drug producers are intentionally targeting kids, as the DEA has suggested. In fact, rainbow fentanyl may even help alert new buyers, who are turning to street pills from prescription medications, since it will help them tell the difference between the clearly fake pills and the ones they are used to. Additionally, some believe the DEA’s warning targeted toward parents are intended to cause panic, and according to Mariah Francis, a resource associate with the National Harm Reduction Coalition, such warnings are “an active byproduct of drug policies that prioritize criminalization and political agendas over active harm reduction.”
Yet some TV news outlets have taken the DEA’s claim that rainbow fentanyl is meant to attract kids and young adults at face value and presented it without any information from independent drug policy experts. Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a pharmaceutical scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Salon, “It's exactly the kind of behavior from the news organizations that leads to misinformation and panics and detracts from the very real public health dangers that we can and should be focused on.”
The DEA has also recently revamped another scare tactic reminiscent of the war on drugs, according to The New Republic: “displaying drug seizures to the public and making highly exaggerated claims about what the busts mean to the illicit drug supply and public health.”
Republicans have quickly latched onto both narratives and used them as an opportunity to attack immigrants and the Biden administration. From The New Republic:
For anti-immigrant drug warriors, the fentanyl-for-kids narrative is a two-for-one deal. They get to characterize Biden’s alleged inaction as a threat to children, when in reality, there isn’t a tremendous difference between the amount of fentanyl seized at the border at the end of the Trump administration and during Biden’s. And the story deflects from the devastation clearly caused by the still largely bipartisan “war on drugs.” Drug criminalization increases overdoses, not candy-colored pills.
Fox News has run with this idea, with The Washington Post reporting in mid-September that the network had mentioned rainbow fentanyl at least 66 times on the air over the previous month, weaponizing the narrative to blame migrants at the border and China for the supposed threat the drug poses to children. The network has further fearmongered about rainbow fentanyl by baselessly claiming that parents should be concerned about the drug appearing in their children’s Halloween candy.
Local media outlets have contributed to the DEA’s panic by reporting on the agency’s statement at face value and without offering any pushback.
- ABC24 (Memphis, Tennessee): “Rainbow fentanyl, the ‘colorful marketing tactic’ already in Memphis Streets.” [9/26/22]
- WRAL-TV (Raleigh, North Carolina): “DEA warns of so-called rainbow fentanyl putting children at risk.” [9/26/22]
- ABC30 (Fresno, California): “Valley officials warning community about 'rainbow fentanyl.'” [9/23/22]
- NBC CT (West Hartford, Connecticut): “Health Officials Raise Concerns Over Colored Fentanyl Pills in Candy Packaging.” [9/27/22]
- Erie News Now (Erie, Pennsylvania): “Local Experts Discuss Dangerous Drug Called Rainbow Fentanyl.” [9/26/22]
- News Channel 8 | KTUL (Tulsa, Oklahoma): “Fentanyl on the rise, becoming a bigger problem in Oklahoma.” [9/26/22]
- KYTX CBS19 (Nacogdoches, Texas): “Yes, ‘rainbow’ fentanyl is circulating in the United States.” [9/19/22]
- KXII (Sherman, Texas): “DEA warns about rainbow-colored fentanyl, appealing to teens and young adults.” [9/26/22]
- KGNS (Laredo, Texas): “Rainbow fentanyl being used to target young adults.” [9/26/22]
- KCEN-TV (Temple, Texas): “Yes, ‘rainbow’ fentanyl is circulating in the United States.” [9/25/22]
Mainstream news outlets also reported on the DEA’s statement without providing additional context from drug policy experts.
- NBC News: “Young people are being targeted with brightly colored ‘rainbow fentanyl,’ government drug agency warns.” [9/27/22]
- MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Mika Brezinski repeated the warning without pushback or any clear evidence that rainbow fentanyl is meant to target kids: “South Florida Sun Sentinel leads with a warning about rainbow fentanyl that has been detected in 18 states. Officials say they have been finding fentanyl that's colored to look like candy and cautioned that children may be the intended target.” [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 9/16/22]
In contrast, CNN health reporter Jacqueline Howard published a nuanced article on rainbow fentanyl. While presenting the concerns with the drug, Howard also included useful context, noting that “parents of young children should not overly panic, and the emergence of this new product is one small part of the larger ongoing opioid crisis.” Howard's piece also quoted an expert who said, “I don’t think the color of the pills greatly increases danger to people who don’t use fentanyl.”