How Candy Snorting Went From a Joke to an Epidemic (Yet Remained a Joke)


KCTV, the CBS affiliate in Kansas City, reports that "many children across the nation are now experimenting with a new and peculiar drug: Smarties." KCTV is referring not to prescription stimulants, which sometimes go by that name, but the tangy, pill-shaped candies in cellophane wrappers. Legions of tykes all over the country supposedly are practicing for future cocaine and meth habits by crushing the candies and snorting the resulting powder up their tiny noses.

How does KCTV know this is happening? Because last week a middle school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, sent parents an email message warning them that students had taken up the nose candy habit, which according to unnamed "authorities" cited by KCTV "could lead to nasal maggots."

Now you're talking. Imperiled children, drugs (sort of), and disgusting symptoms? That's yellow-journalism gold. 

Unfortunately, there are no pictures of fly larvae spilling out of kids' noses, possibly because the risk of nasal maggots is purely speculative, as even USA Today, which is not exactly known for skepticism in such matters, concedes:

Perhaps the most striking risk mentioned—nasal maggots—is actually a highly unlikely scenario.

"It's pretty far out there," said Laura Orvidas, a pediatric ear, nose and throat doctor at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center.

In order for maggots to develop, there must be dead tissue for the maggots to feed on and then there must be the "random fly" that lays eggs in there, Orvidas said.

Orvidas said she has seen maggots in a sinus cavity, but it was not from snorting Smarties.

Despite the long shot of getting maggots, "maybe it'll scare the kids to quit doing it," Orvidas said.

The more likely health problems associated with snorting the candy is getting the powder into the lungs, leading to an asthma attack or long-term breathing problems, she said.

What exactly is the appeal? "Officials say children have been snorting candy to imitate cocaine users seen on TV and the movies," KCTV reports. It quotes a panicky Portsmouth parent: "Where do they get these ideas? You know, can they harm themselves? You know, what will it lead to? They are all concerns, obviously."

Obviously. Stories about kids snorting crushed Smarties (and powder from Pixy Stix) have been circulating for years. Fittingly, the first reference to the practice turned up by a Nexis search was in the context of anti-drug propaganda. In November 2007 the St. Petersburg Times carried this item:

Don't do drugs. It's a popular message in schools. But two students at Waynesburg (Pa.) Central High School have learned that it's also best to not do crushed up Smarties while making a video against drug use.

Zachary Schloemer and John DiBuono were making the antidrug video as part of a TV workshop when they decided to dramatize the snorting of cocaine by crushing up the candy into powder. But that's against school rules, too, because look-alike drugs are as bad as the real thing, and the students were slapped with 10-day suspensions. DiBuouno, a 4.0 student, also must attend drug counseling. "The only words said in the entire public service announcement was, 'Don't do drugs,' and now I'm being sent to rehabilitation conference," he said.

A year later, Smarty snorting was featured in a jokey Newark Star-Ledger lead: "To be a mall Santa Claus takes a special breed, someone immune to normal human reactions that would send the average person into a downward spiral of drinking rubbing alcohol and snorting crushed Smarties." In March 2009 The Wall Street Journal reported that students at Summit Middle School in Frisco, Colorado, were "smoking" Smarties, a practice it described this way:

The children didn't light the candy. They crushed it into a fine powder in its wrapper, tore off one end, poured the powder into their mouths and blew out fine Smarties dust, mimicking a smoker's exhale.

"It was freaky," says Corinne McGrew, a nurse for Summit School District. "My biggest concern was that they would aspirate the wrapper or a whole Smarties and it would be a choking hazard."

The Journal story seems to be the first one that mentioned maggots:

Oren Friedman, a Mayo Clinic nose specialist, cautioned that frequent use could lead to infections or even worse, albeit rare, conditions, such as maggots that feed on sugary dust wedged inside the nose.

A February 2010 story in The Oregonian, reporting on a Smarty ban at Brown Middle School in Hillsboro, noted Friedman's maggot warning but treated it skeptically. When the paper asked pediatric pulmonologist Holger Link about the possibility, he laughed. "I think that was a joke," he said. Link "researched medical case reports and found no record of harmful reactions from Smarties."

Those reports were followed by cautionary stories from the Birmingham News ("Smoking Smarties Not Too Smart," December 25, 2011), the Associated Press ("Educators Worried by Trend of Snorting Candy," December 26, 2011), the Easton, Pennsylvania, Express-Times ("Candy Going Up Kids' Noses, Principal Warns," March 23, 2013), the Lihue, Hawaii, Garden Island ("Not Wise to Smoke Smarties," September 2, 2013), and UPI ("9-Year-Old Suspended for Snorting Smarties Candy Powder," November 21, 2013). Then came last week's email warning from Portsmouth Middle School, which inspired stories on local TV stations in Providence, St. Louis, Richmond, Denver, Columbus, Kansas City, and Charleston, South Carolina, among other places. All of them treated the memo as evidence of a trend. But whereas the earlier stories described kids exhaling candy powder to simulate smoking, the recent ones claim kids are mimicking cocaine snorters. 

Unlike candy-flavored meth, Smarties really do exist, and kids really have been known to crush them and inhale the powder from time to time. It seems a few incidents (or rumors of incidents) were enough to inspire warnings and bans at various schools, which in turn reinforced the impression of a candy-snorting epidemic sweeping the nation. The YouTube videos did not help.

According to a Portsmouth Middle School parent quoted by KCTV, kids at the school "laugh about it. They say that they've heard of kids doing it, but they don't imply that it's a big problem or that it's something that a lot of people do." Those kids will never make it in journalism.

[Thanks to Ron Steiner for the KCTV link.]