What Are ‘Fentapills’? What Young People Need to Know
with Ed Ternan of Song for Charlie
Counterfeit prescription pills — primarily fentanyl — continue to drive the death toll in America’s opioid epidemic.
Ed Ternan, President of the nonprofit charity Song for Charlie, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share his family’s story — and how their personal experience sparked an educational campaign targeted at teens and young adults.
November 30, 2021
Anderson: The year 2020 saw the largest annual increase in fatal drug overdoses in the last 50 years, with more than 93,000 deaths. That's a 30% increase over 2019. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Opioids, primarily illegal fentanyl, continue to drive the death toll, with counterfeit prescription pills playing a large part. In May of 2020, 22-year-old Charlie Ternan died after taking a counterfeit painkiller laced with fentanyl. His father, Ed Ternan, joins me to share his family's personal story and mission to tackle this crisis through Song for Charlie. It's a family-run nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about what has become known as fentapills. And, Ed, thanks so much for being here.
Ternan: Thank you for having me on.
Anderson: So, your son Charlie went online to get painkillers, but didn't get what he was expecting. Tell us what happened.
Ternan: Yeah, Charlie's death is part of this emerging danger that's out there with these counterfeit prescription pills, which have just flooded the online and street markets. There are really no legitimate pills out there anymore. If you go online, you're gonna get a fake. And Charlie didn't know that. So, you know, he's a senior in college. He's hanging out in his room. He had a job interview later that day, but on the telephone. And so he had some time to kill, and he and a buddy found a dealer posting his wares on Snapchat, said, "I'm gonna grab a Percocet. I know what that does. I had back surgery a couple years ago, and I'm gonna sit here and play video games and relax before my job interview." As far as we know, he took the pill about three o'clock in the afternoon, and he never made that five o'clock phone call. He was dead within about 15 minutes. And so, his is not a party death. These kids are dying at younger ages because they're being sold something they think is safe when really it's a deadly substance.
Anderson: And speaking of deadly, in September of 2021, the DEA actually issued a public warning about this. The agency hasn't done that in some time. How important is that and what does that tell you about the crisis that we're in?
Ternan: Yeah, it's really an urgent problem. And the difference is the deception. That's what's new. So, drug dealers have always tried to find stronger, cheaper, easier-to-hide raw materials with which to make their drugs, and fentanyl certainly is all of that. But selling a young person something that you present as a Xanax or a Vicodin or a Percocet, something that these kids are prescribed for their wisdom teeth, and telling them that's what you're giving them when really you're selling them something that's 100% fake made of an extremely powerful opioid, that's a different problem. That's really something that it really needs to be escalated to the level of like child exploitation. It's a totally new phenomenon.
Anderson: So, Charlie's overdose was from a pill that he essentially purchased via social media, but instead of seeking retribution against social media, you're actually joining forces. Explain how you made that decision and what you're doing together.
Ternan: Yeah, Mary and I thought long and hard about this, but we decided that if we're going to reach the kids, which is the the most important thing, while society tries to catch up to this new problem of counterfeiting these meds, we need to warn the kids in the meantime. So, at the time of Charlie's death, in the county he was in, there were news stories about fake pills and fentanyl, and it was in the newspaper, and law enforcement had bulletins on their websites. But that's not where middle school and high school and college kids get their news. They are on social media. So we thought, what impact could we have if we made the social media companies our ally instead of our adversary? And we took that approach, and it's been very successful so far. We're reaching kids at scale, in the millions of kids with our social media awareness campaigns.
Anderson: And so, a large part of this mission really is to make online pill buying, pill sharing totally socially unacceptable. What can we the public do to really amplify what you're already working on?
Ternan: Well, of course, you can talk to your kids. You can do your research. You can pay attention to what's going on in the drug world. It's really changed from when I was growing up where we were warned about the drug world being kind of a path and if you got off on the wrong path one day, you could get addicted and possibly overdose. These days, young people, they're facing something more akin to a minefield where their next step could be their last. So information is critical. If you have to navigate a minefield, you really have to know where you're going and what's out there. And so that's what we're trying to do at Song for Charlie. And so talk about it and learn about it and tell everyone that one pill can kill these days.
Anderson: So, Ed, this organization was named for your son, Charlie. Tell us a little bit about who he was as a person and what he would think about the work that you're doing to serve everybody.
Ternan: Right, well, Song for Charlie actually comes from a song that was written by one of his good friends shortly after his death to honor Charlie's love of music and movies. He had a couple older siblings, and he could quote movie lines and, you know, he knew '70s bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that his parents and older siblings introduced him to that his friends had never heard of. Really glue for his friend group; an infectious laugh; big, strong kid -- 6'2", 230. And he would just really not want what happened to him to happen to any of his friends who he really cared deeply for. And so we think Charlie would be proud of the work we're doing to just bring this warning message to alert young people that if you go online to get a pill, it's not what you're asking for. So we think he'd be proud of us and of the work we're doing, and we in some ways feel like he's guiding us in our mission.
Anderson: And, you know, it's such an important mission. I know people are gonna want to know more about it. What's the website? Where can they go?
Ternan: Songforcharlie.org is where people can find resources for young people, parents, and teachers, and they can also go and sign our No Random Pills Pledge at songforcharlie.org.
Anderson: Ed Ternan of Song for Charlie, thank you so much for your time.
Ternan: Thank you for having me on.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.