Parents & PSM to the Sacramento Bee: please call these deaths poisonings

PSM has been grateful for the Sacramento Bee's news coverage about counterfeit pills made with fentanyl. The newspaper has been at the forefront of writing about counterfeit pills made with fentanyl since a wave of fake painkillers killed 14 people in the Sacramento area in 2016.

At the same time, the Bee has persistently used the word “overdose” to describe fake pill deaths when the most accurate word for what happens to counterfeit pill victims is “poisoning,” even using "overdose" in a recent article that quoted a bereaved parent making the distinction.

In November, PSM and a group of parents wrote the Bee to point out the danger of describing these deaths as overdoses rather than poisoning.

Read the letter below, and learn more about our campaign to tell a clearer story here.

Click on the blue bird to tweet this message encouraging the reporters to describe these deaths as poisonings.

. @sacbee_news @slebar Thank you for covering the crisis of fentanyl deaths in the Sacramento area. I encourage you to describe deaths from fake pills as "poisonings" not "overdoses."

November 12, 2021


Michael Finch II, Reporter
Scott Lebar, Managing Editor
The Sacramento Bee
2100 Q. Street
Sacramento, CA, 95816

Dear Mr. Finch and Mr. Lebar:

We write today alongside Californians who lost loved ones to fentanyl poisoning as a result of counterfeit pills. The Sacramento Bee has been reporting on pills like these since the spring of 2016 when fake Norco killed more than a dozen people in the Sacramento area. We appreciate your steady efforts to bring awareness to the threat these pills pose.

At the same time, we are asking the Bee to stop using the  word “overdose” to describe fake pill deaths when the most accurate word for what happens to counterfeit pill victims is “poisoning.”

We are not the first people to introduce this issue to the Bee. In a recent article Mr. Finch interviewed Ed Ternan, whose son, Charlie, was killed by a fake pill in 2020, and discussed the distinction between overdose and poisoning:

“He likes to use a liquor store analogy: Let's say you purchase a bottle of whiskey and die after taking a sip because it was actually brown food coloring and cyanide. Is that an overdose?

‘That is not an overdose by definition,’ Ternan said. ‘I did not take too much of anything; that is a poisoning and the responsibility for that death is on the seller of that counterfeit product.’

Unfortunately, like past articles about counterfeit pill cases, this most recent piece almost universally uses the word overdose instead of poisoning:

Headline: "'I Cry - Every Day' - Fentanyl Overdoses Spread Death and Misery"

Article:  “Toxicology tests uncovered the culprit: a pill disguised as Norco was tainted with fentanyl. By the time the first patient was released two weeks later, nearly 50 overdoses would occur.”

“Tirado's death from ingesting a counterfeit pill Sept. 7 was number 66 in Sacramento County last year, part of a dramatic increase in overdoses linked to fentanyl during the pandemic.”

Photo caption: “​​Family and friends say a few words before releasing the balloons to honor Mikael Tirado in Rancho Cordova on Sept. 6. Tirado died Sept. 7, 2020, from an accidental overdose.”

Characterizing these deaths as overdoses instead of poisonings has terrible public health consequences because “overdose” is a word so closely associated with addiction. Readers whose families are not dealing with addiction may dismiss the threat as irrelevant to them.

Law enforcement and public health officials have been warning about this danger for five years and the DEA just issued a public safety alert about counterfeit pills, but the problem is still a new one. The families we work with have told us they were unaware of the danger of fake pills and could not warn their loved ones, many of whom were fatally poisoned after taking what they thought was a legitimate prescription drug.

We have asked the Associated Press Stylebook to consider changing their guidelines about how they cover this issue (attached) and we ask you to make a commitment to describing these deaths as poisonings rather than overdoses.

It would help a great deal if you could help educate other reporters about the difference between overdose and poisoning simply by tweeting your support of our proposal to the AP’s Stylebook at @apstylebook. You can do that at

Thank you for your coverage of these deaths, your public health warnings, and for your consideration of this matter.


Shabbir Imber Safdar, Executive Director
The Partnership for Safe Medicines

Carolyn Britten, Visalia, California
Mother of Travis, poisoned by a fake Xanax on August 13, 2019

Natasha Butler, New Orleans, Louisiana
Mother of Jerome, poisoned in Sacramento, California by a fake Norco on March 26, 2016

Laura Didier, Rocklin, California
Mother of Zach Didier, 17 years old, murdered by a fentanyl-based fake Percocet, 2020

Jerry Jacobson, Visalia, California
Father of Travis, poisoned by a fake Xanax on August 13, 2019

Carrie Luther, Mount Hermon, California
Mother of Tosh, poisoned by a fake Xanax on October 26, 2015

Amy Neville, Aliso Viejo, California
Mother of Alexander Neville, murdered by a fentanyl-based fake oxycodone, 2020

Ed Ternan, Pasadena, California
Father of Charlie, poisoned by a fake Percocet on May 14, 2020