A school administrator in Rhode Island sparked national alarm last week after sending letters to parents about an “unsafe, new trend” among middle school students: crushing up and snorting Smarties candies.

The story, first publicized by a local blogger and later picked up by numerous media outlets, traces back to Maine. One local expert described the widespread news coverage — particularly claims that snorting the candy could lead to maggots infesting the nose — as “outrageous” and “fear mongering.”

In fall 2011, Scarborough Middle School Principal Barbara Hathorn notified parents that children were crushing up the candies and either blowing out the dust like cigarette smoke or snorting it up their noses. Children were videotaping the behavior and posting it to YouTube.

The letter detailed the risks of such behavior, including cuts, infection and nasal maggots potentially “feeding on the sugary dust inside the nose.”

More than two years later, Hathorn was surprised to see many news outlets, including the LA Times, reference her letter as as an example of alarm at the “new trend.” She also realized that the letter sent to parents in Portsmouth, R.I., matches hers nearly verbatim.

“Students started bringing in huge bags of Smarties to sell to make a little money,” she said Monday. “We thought that was odd, and when we went to do a little investigation, the kids told us why.”

While nothing indicated students were snorting the candy on school grounds, some talked about it in school and reported practicing the behavior at home, Hathorn said. She asked school nurses to research the practice, then drafted the letter to parents as a precautionary measure, she said. Hathorn also referenced the issue on her principal’s blog, which she no longer maintains.

The Rhode Island school must have discovered her letter, perhaps through an online search, Hathorn said. The school did not contact her about reusing it, she said.

While Smarties snorting has attracted plenty of attention nationally, Hathorn received little feedback at the time from local parents, she said. The practice is no longer an issue in Scarborough, she said.

“What’s being published on the web is outrageous,” said Dr. Karen Simone, a clinical toxicologist and director of the Northern New England Poison Center. “It’s fear mongering, it’s just not correct. It’s ridiculous to think that your average child would snort Smarties, and then you’d have to worry about maggots growing in their nose. That’s something you’d see in tropical countries maybe, with leprosy.”

The last time the poison center recorded children snorting Smarties in Maine was in 2007, when a group of five children had done it together, Simone said. The state recorded one other case in 2004.

The practice has been seen more recently in New Hampshire, which recorded four children snorting or smoking the candy in September 2013, she said. Simone recalls the behavior occurring in the midwest more than a decade ago.

“This is not new,” she said.

The practice appears to occur most often among seventh-graders, typically those acting on a dare, Simone said.

“There’s not a great health risk,” she said. “The worst I’d expect is an irritated nose. I suppose if you inhaled a large piece or a large amount, it could irritate your lungs, but unless you’re asthmatic or get really extreme exposure, I really wouldn’t expect that would be a problem.”

The behavior is concerning, however, in that children are imitating drug use, she said. Snorting the candy does not provide any kind of high.

“My biggest concern would be that these kids at this age are thinking that it’s cool to pretend that they’re abusing drugs,” Simone said.

Parents shouldn’t panic, but all the recent talk about the behavior should prompt a discussion with children about drug abuse, she said. Ask why the practice seems cool, and talk with children about the risks of using drugs, Simone said.

“There are a lot of things that we should be very, very concerned about, but maggots in the nose is not the way to get attention,” she said. “Snorting Smarties is nowhere near up there with the serious problems that we have.”

Middle school students are at the age where many are experiencing their first exposure to alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, Simone said. Some are even experimenting with inhalant abuse, huffing spray paint, gasoline or items less likely to draw an adult’s attention, such as deodorant and computer keyboard sprays, she said.

“We’ve had kids lose consciousness while they’re laying across a railroad track, [or] drive while they’re intoxicated on computer keyboard spray,” Simone said. “Those are things that will make them high and can make them sick.”

Long-term inhalant abuse can prove addictive and lead to permanent brain damage, she said.

“Sudden sniffing deaths” related to inhalant abuse are a rare but very real concern, she said. The heart rates spikes, caused by stress or strenuous activity after using inhalants, leading to heart failure. Often the user has been startled, such as by an adult catching them, and dies even before an ambulance arrives, she said.

In comparison, the Smarties snorting is much less worrisome, Simone said. Still, “snorting Smarties is not so smart,” she said.

Poison Control can be reached at 800-222-1222, 24 hours a day. Calls need not be an emergency and callers may remain anonymous.

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...