From Crack Babies to Oxytots: Lessons Not Learned

In the 1980s, many government officials, scientists, and journalists warned that the country would be plagued by a generation of “crack babies.” They were wrong. More than 25 years later, the media is sounding a similar alarm.

Easy to transport, highly addictive and sometimes deadly, crack cocaine ripped through the 1980s like a bullet, a headline-maker that seemed to destroy lives at every turn. But the symbol of that destruction was not the tiny crack vials littering the streets or the addicts crouching in corners. The poster child for America’s drug epidemic was a jittery infant whom commentators said was destined to a lifetime of pain and suffering through no fault of its own.

The “crack baby” represented the Pandora’s box that cocaine had become. But how did these tiny infants gain such status and was it justified?

In 2013, Retro Report went back to look at the story of these children from the perspective of those in the eye of the storm — tracing the trajectory from the small 1985 medical study that first raised the alarm, through the drumbeat of media coverage that kept the story alive, to, decades later, when a cocaine-exposed research subject told Retro Report her own surprising life story.

But the story did not end there, as Retro Report reveals in its new updated video, From Crack Babies to Oxytots. Again, the media is raising the alarm, this time over Oxytots, newborns exposed to painkillers while still in the womb. As in the 1980s, the public fear over a new generation of drug-addicted babies may be leading to policies that do more harm than good.

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
  • Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Bret Sigler
  • Reporter: Sarah Weiser