November 28th, 2008

Anti-Energy Drink Fuels Concerns Over Marketing

By Jemimah Noonoo
Houston Chronicle

Some fear Drank is gateway to risky syrup-alcohol mix

First came Red Bull and Monster Energy, giving a high-octane boost to late-night parties and study sessions.

Now the anti-energy drinks have arrived, carbonated beverages that promise to help you “slow your roll” or “lean with it.”

But with their hip-hop-inspired advertising campaigns, Drank and Purple Stuff are generating a buzz that is anything but chill.

“I am very concerned about the marketing,” said Ronald Peters, a University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health professor. Peters has researched the phenomenon of mixing codeine syrup with soft drinks or alcohol, a concoction that is believed to have factored in the deaths of three local rap stars.

“Sippin’ syrup” is believed to have originated in Houston and it remains a common topic for Southern rappers. “Drank,” “purple stuff” and “lean” are street terms for the illicit mixture.

Peters said he worries the new canned beverages could be a gateway for youth who want to experience the slowed-down effect of cough-syrup abuse. He called the products a step in the wrong direction and criticized them as “one of the most asinine things I have ever seen.”

The Rev. Michael P. Williams, pastor of Joy Baptist Tabernacle Church in the Third Ward, said the Drank and Purple Stuff ad campaigns recall a troubling history of marketing such products as cigarettes and malt liquor in African-American communities. He said the companies that promote products like this shun “moral responsibility” and perpetuate harmful caricatures.

“These products are deliberately marketed in inner-city communities, where there is already some form of pathology that exists to begin with,” Williams said. “Crime, poverty ... these things are exacerbated by these kind of investments.”

Drank’s creator, Peter Bianchi of Houston, defended his product and denied targeting consumers in specific neighborhoods.

“We have been doing well in white, middle-class neighborhoods, too,” Bianchi said, citing strong sales in suburban Friendswood. He said Drank, which launched in Houston and was made available online in October, is now sold in Austin and Dallas, as well as communities in Missouri, New York and Connecticut.

Drank’s Web site says those using the product include rappers, professionals, students and insomniacs. A MySpace page dedicated to the beverage shows smiling black youth brandishing the bottle and plays a tune by rapper Lil Wayne: Me and My Drank (which refers to the real thing).

Several calls to the company that makes Purple Stuff were not returned.

At three gasoline stations in mostly black or Hispanic neighborhoods in Missouri City, Galena Park and Third Ward clerks reported the drinks were popular among youth coming from clubs on the weekends. At the Spec’s in downtown Houston, a representative said the drink has been “selling well.”

But at two stations in predominantly Anglo neighborhoods one in far west Houston and the other in Katy’s Cinco Ranch clerks had not heard of Drank or Purple Stuff.

Ingredients alone are safe
Drank and Purple Stuff contain melatonin, rose hips and valerian root, all of which have a calming effect, said Amitava Dasgupta, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the UT Medical School in Houston. He said valerian can ease anxiety and help people sleep.

While agreeing these ingredients are not harmful by themselves, Dasgupta, the author of a forthcoming book on herbal remedies, expressed concern over the lack of research on what happens when they are mixed with alcohol.

Bianchi, whose Innovative Beverage Group Inc. also distributes Arizona and Sweet Leaf teas, said his drink is safe.

“This is a healthy alternative to alcohol after a long day of work,” he said. “It is designed to be a hip, new alternative for young adults to find a way to relax.”

Bianchi also said Drank’s marketing is not intended to glorify codeine abuse. Rather, he said, “drank” is common slang for a party beverage. To “lean,” he added, is simply to kick back and take a relaxed approach to life.

“We are not trying to sedate anyone,” Bianchi said.

“The word ‘drank’ was to catch people’s attention,” he added. “You have to put on bling-bling to get noticed.”

Local producer DJ Screw, credited with developing a slowed-down rap style called “chopped and screwed,” extolled the use of the recreational drug in his songs before his death in 2000 of a codeine overdose. Houston rapper Big Moe, who also sipped syrup and whose biggest hit was Purple Stuff, died of a heart attack in 2007. And Port Arthur rapper Pimp C died a short while later from an accidental overdose of cough syrup and a pre-existing sleep apnea condition, according to medical reports.

‘Like a mockery for us’
Reactions among local rappers to the new canned drinks were mixed.

“Come on, man,” said Marcus Lakee Edwards, who performs as Lil’ Keke and is a member of the Screwed Up Click. “These drinks are adding more fuel to the fire, especially after the Big Moe, Pimp C thing happened. This is like a mockery for us.”

Derrick Bixon, who signed the late Big Moe to his Wreckshop Records label, was puzzled at the concept of an anti-energy drink.

“Who needs to not have enough energy?” Bixon asked with a dry laugh. “In black America, we need more energy. No one needs to be slow and smooth at the rate we’re going. We need to speed up.”

However, rapper Stayve Jerome Thomas, whose stage name is Slim Thug, said he likes the idea of a non-narcotic substitute for syrup.

“I would rather the kids drink that stuff in the store that doesn’t have the drugs in it than drink the actual syrup,” said Slim Thug, who said he sips syrup occasionally. He said young people who want to try it will do so whether Drank is on the market or not.

Williams, the pastor, said he hopes Drank will spark a conversation about the types of products promoted in inner-city neighborhoods.

“I don’t believe in censorship,” he said. “They have a right to compete in the open market. But no company should be able to operate in our community’s stores uncriticized and unchallenged.”

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