Impacted families, advocates say fentanyl crisis requires a COVID-style awareness blitz

Grieving families and advocates say there is an alarming mismatch between the severe and immediate threat posed by fentanyl and the level of awareness across America, especially among young people who do not consume mainstream media.

They want to see the type of flood-the-zone coverage that COVID-19 received at the height of the pandemic, and they wish celebrities with millions of social media followers would step up to warn young people about fake pills and other fentanyl-laced drugs that can kill with a single dose.

“For two-and-a-half years, we knew we were supposed to stay six feet away from each other and wear a damn mask and make sure you get your vaccines and all that,” said Steven Filson, the secretary-treasurer for California nonprofit Victims of Illicit Drugs, and whose 29-year-old daughter Jessica died of fentanyl poisoning in January 2020. “When are we going to start talking about fentanyl? And when are people going to understand fentanyl?”

Song for Charlie, a nonprofit that raises awareness about “fentapills,” said in a recent study that fewer than half of young Americans ages 13-24 (48%) and little more than a third of teens (36%) are aware that fentanyl is being used to create counterfeit pills, which are a major profit-driver for Mexican cartels.

Only 40% of young Americans, including 31% of teens, consider themselves knowledgeable about fentanyl. One in 10 teenagers and one in five young adults reported using prescription medicine without a doctor’s authorization.
Families who spoke to The Washington Times said their wish list includes mandatory school curriculum on the dangers of fentanyl at K-12 schools and pop-up warnings about fentanyl when young people log onto social media platforms.

And while they were happy to hear President Biden raise the issue in his State of the Union address, they want to see sustained results and a plan to rout Mexican cartels that are feeding the supply of synthetic opioids into American communities.

The stakes are high. While the rate of drug overdose deaths declined slightly in 2022, the annual death toll of more than 100,000 is far above the toll seen a decade ago. Roughly 70,000 of the 107,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021 were tied at least in part to fentanyl.

Last September, two students overdosed at a Hollywood high school and one of them — a 15-year-old girl — died after taking what they thought were Percocet pills. 

Authorities warned that fake versions of Adderall, a drug used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, could be laced with fentanyl after two Ohio State University students died of overdoses last May.

“It’s frightening. We’ve had moms ask us the question, ‘Is fentanyl still a thing?’ Which is like a punch to the gut,” said Lisa Deane, who founded the Demand Zero nonprofit to fight the overdose crisis after her son, Joe, died of fentanyl poisoning in 2018. “Kids aren’t as aware as they should be.”

Advocates warn the drug landscape has changed drastically from the drug-laden days of experimentation in the 1960s, or the famous “skillet” campaign in the 1980s that warned drugs would gradually fry your brains like an egg. For many, there is no second chance with fentanyl.

“You can’t experiment anymore. They’re putting it in everything, and that one experiment could be your last experiment,” Mr. Filson said. “Fentanyl is a whole new animal. That’s what our society needs to understand.”
Policymakers, doctors and journalists have been talking about the risks of fentanyl since it began flooding the heroin supply during the middle of the last decade. But sometimes people who spend a lot of time on a subject overestimate how much the rest of the general public knows about it, according to Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who tracks the opioid crisis.

He said most young people do not know much, if anything, about fentanyl; a synthetic opioid known as isotonitazene, or “iso;” and xylazine, a veterinary sedative known as “tranq” that is added to opioid drugs and causes skin abscesses and amputations.

“There’s too much else to pay attention to,” Mr. Humphreys said. “We know from research that threatening/scolding campaigns do not help, but that doesn’t mean all public information campaigns are a bad idea. Simply telling people facts and where to get information and other forms of help is a good thing.”

Derek Maltz, who formerly ran the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special operations division, said one of the biggest hurdles in reaching young Americans is that they do not consume the type of media where the fentanyl threat is likely to be raised and debated.

“The kids of America are not watching mainstream media, they’re not watching cable news, they’re not reading The Washington Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New York Post. They’re watching video reels on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, right? That’s what they do all day long,” Mr. Maltz said. “We’re not thinking outside the box. People don’t even understand how these kids are operating across America today.”

The Biden administration and social media companies say they are working to plug those gaps.

The DEA has a “Just One Pill Can Kill” campaign featuring YouTube clips, which can be shared on social media, about the dangers of fake pills and fentanyl. It also has an “Operation Prevention” curriculum that is available at no cost for grades 3-12.

“We have a very hardened senior agent in charge in the United States who said to me, not too long ago, that if he had an hour of time right now and he had to choose between putting handcuffs on someone or doing public awareness, right now he would do public awareness. Because still, too many Americans do not understand the dangers,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told Congress last week.

The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy said it is expanding a “Real Deal on Fentanyl” campaign from the Ad Council that highlights the role of naloxone in reversing overdoses. 

Advocates said they appreciate Mr. Biden calling attention to the issue in his recent speech to Congress, but want to see results.

“Our national response requires a united effort that combines the best ideas from harm reduction, law enforcement and drug education in ways that have a lasting impact,” said Ed Ternan, co-founder of Song for Charlie. “I hope the administration will use its renewed focus on the issue to foster innovation and encourage higher levels of cooperation between all parties within the government and the private sector.”

Among social media companies, TikTok said it prohibits the promotion or sale of drugs on its platform, promotes Fentanyl Awareness Day and has a “substance support center” with in-app and online information about substance abuse, its dangers and contact information for U.S. sites where users can find help.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it lets nonprofits use their platform to run ad campaigns and said it works to scrub any drug content from their platforms, as lawmakers push social media companies to root out users who are selling pills through social media.

“We’re working hard to keep this content off Facebook and Instagram while surfacing communities of support that help those struggling with addiction,” a Meta spokesperson said. “While we take down content that is related to drug sales and misuse, we do allow people to talk about their recovery from substance misuse.”

Mr. Filson said he would like to see social media companies go further and post an immediate warning when they open the app, while others want states to put fentanyl warnings alongside reading and math as part of the school day.

“If I were queen for the day, I’d make it mandatory curriculum for age 5 and up,” said Ms. Deane, who lives in Madison, Connecticut. “There isn’t anything that kids don’t understand about COVID, because it was in our face every single day.”

Some nonprofits are taking their message about fentanyl and its devastating impact on families directly into schools willing to host them.

Mr. Filson said middle school and high school students who listen to VOID’s presentation are “riveted” and thank them for sharing their stories, saying it made them consider the impact their deaths would have on their parents and families.

Advocates on the frontlines say parents and nonprofits can only reach so many people, so they’d like to see pro sports leagues and big-ticket celebrities get involved. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo promoted the COVID-19 vaccines at the White House and BTS, the K-Pop behemoth, paid a similar visit to call attention to anti-Asian hate.

“Right now, the only way kids are hearing about this is [through] grieving families,” Mr. Maltz said.

Advocates said they’ve gotten incremental traction with athletes.

Jack Driscoll, an offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, is from Madison, Connecticut, and raised awareness about fentanyl and Demand Zero with a “My Cause, My Cleats” program in which NFL players use their footwear to highlight critical issues.

“We need more and more and more,” Ms. Deane said. “The only thing kids really respond to is cold hard facts [and] hearing from someone that either overdosed or hearing from a celebrity or someone they know — that this happened to them and this could happen to you.”

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