CNN Deletes Debunked Fentanyl ‘Overdose’ Story Amid Outcry From Physicians Group

Almost 400 doctors and experts are calling on multiple media outlets to retract stories falsely claiming you can overdose from mere contact with “potent” synthetic opioids

fentanyl bag
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CNN has deleted a video online amid outcry from physicians and researchers over its drug-related subject matter.

Nearly 400 doctors and experts sent a letter to a variety of outlets this week — and there are plans to send it to more — urging them to retract stories that credulously repeated the San Diego Sheriff’s Office’s claim that a sheriff’s deputy trainee overdosed after being exposed to fentanyl. The doctors are concerned that misinformation has created a dangerous perception there is a health risk to first responders who come into contact with fentanyl overdoses, and that there are first responders and others hesitating to treat overdose patients because of that misperception.

The SDSO released a “public safety video” with body camera footage from the July 3 incident last Thursday and numerous outlets, including CNN, picked it up over the weekend. CNN’s video is no longer available, though that outlet has yet to formally receive the letter.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid more powerful than heroin and morphine, has infiltrated the American drug supply in recent years. That infiltration has given rise to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as the third wave of the overdose epidemic, following the increase in prescriptions for opioid medications in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the heroin use that followed it. As fentanyl overdose deaths have increased, so, too, has misinformation about the drug.

To put it simply, experts insist a person cannot overdose from passive fentanyl exposure, which the retraction letter explains by citing the 2017 findings of a joint American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology task force, as well as a report from STAT News. In spite of that, numerous police departments have said over the past few years that they’ve had officers overdose from passive fentanyl exposure — and outlets big and small have run with the stories. Last year, the Harm Reduction Journal noted that in 2017, there were over 150 media reports detailing first responder exposures to opioids. Over the weekend, the story of the San Diego sheriff’s deputy trainee gained widespread traction, with not only CNN, but the Los Angeles Times, Fox News and others reporting on the video from July 3 while the sheriff’s office doubled down on Twitter when confronted by skeptics. A 2021 study found widespread belief by law enforcement officers that skin contact with fentanyl could cause toxicity.

Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and addiction medicine specialist who serves as an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, helped create the retraction letter in response to not only the San Diego story, but others like it that have cropped up over the years. He credited Texas pharmacist Lucas Hill with coming up with the idea for a retraction demand letter “with a number of expert voices and a consensus coalition” that can be used whenever an outlet publishes a story about an alleged exposure overdose in the future.

“This is just something that continues to pop up, kind of like whack-a-mole,” he told TheWrap on Monday night, when the letter had more than 300 signatures. “Every time you deal with one of these stories, two more pop up. So having something in our back pocket rather than kind of being caught when this gets international attention was the goal.”

Marino said that a few years ago, when he first saw news reports claiming someone had overdosed from fentanyl exposure, he found them “comical” because he knew “this was totally implausible.” As these stories have proliferated, though, he’s noticed real-world consequences. “At some point, either in 2017 or 2018, I actually witnessed firsthand an overdose patient not being resuscitated as people kind of backed away and tried to seal off the room,” he said. “I’ve seen seen those incidents play out repeatedly. That was very disconcerting to me, which made me think that maybe this wasn’t just something to kind of laugh about.”

Beyond that, he said, “People are being charged with additional crimes — like assault of an officer, endangerment of an officer — or having harsher penalties for possession and use of drugs like fentanyl because of reports like this.”

“We are issuing this letter to request a retraction and correction of your recent article which perpetuates a myth: that casual contact with potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl poses a health risk to first responders. This is dangerous misinformation that can cause harm both to people who use opioids and to members of the law enforcement community. We greatly appreciate your cooperation in addressing this error,” says the letter, which is signed by doctors, pharmacists, researchers, journalists and more.

The letter outlines the signees’ positions that stories about alleged passive fentanyl exposure overdoses not only cause harm to opioid users, but first responders who “may suffer emotional trauma if they believe that passive exposures put their lives at risk, even if that belief itself does not correspond to reality.” It directs journalists and editors to resources that can enhance their reporting on drug-related topics.

The San Diego Union-Tribune and local CBS and ABC outlets were the first to receive the letter, though the group has plans to send it wider through the week. Representatives for those outlets did not immediately return a request for comment on whether they plan to retract their stories, although the link to CNN’s story began redirecting to the site’s homepage sometime between Monday and Wednesday in spite of that outlet not yet receiving the letter. There was no retraction or explanation offered when TheWrap reached out for comment on what happened to the video posted by CNN, which relied on the SDSO’s “public safety video” and did not include the perspective of doctors or researchers.

Marino acknowledged he believed the deputy trainee in the video was “experiencing real symptoms, [but] they’re not at all fentanyl toxicity symptoms.” His “bigger concern,” he added, is that the sheriff’s office “put this video out under the auspices of it being a public service announcement about the dangers of fentanyl and trying to educate the community. They did that without doing any education themselves or even performing a perfunctory Google search to show that this is not physically possible.”

Marino sees the current pandemic moment as a chance to embrace broader lessons on medical misinformation and the media’s responsibility in combatting, not perpetuating, it. “We are living in these pandemic times and seeing kind of the worst case scenario of what medical misinformation and dissemination of bad information can actually do,” he said.

“Facts matter,” he added, “and that’s kind of the first and most important way we can combat the drug problem that we have as well.”


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