Fashionably Stoned

This article by David Sheff was originally published at Medium

A “Celebrity Boutique” Celebrates Drug Use at Children’s Expense

The banner on the website of Kitson, the self-described celebrity boutique whose customers include Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon, and Paris Hilton, reads, “Pop one on and you’ll feel better. Just what the doctor ordered.” The prescription is for customers to check out the company’s line of jerseys and sweatshirts emblazoned with the words VICODIN, XANAX, and ADDERALL, three of the most misused prescription medications, the class of drugs now killing more people than any other nonnatural cause, even traffic accidents.

Pop references to drugs are nothing new. Miley Cyrus’s twerking at MTV’s Video Music Awards was talked about more than Syria, but not much was said about the song she sang that made “dancing with Molly” sound pretty great. Molly is MDMA—Ecstasy, the drug that killed two kids and left others in critical condition at the Electronic Zoo music festival in New York City on August 31. (The New York Times has reported more deaths since then.) Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Kanye West, Rihanna, and Rick Ross also sing the praises of Molly, but those endorsements are simply the latest in the tradition of countless songs, movies, TV shows, and products that make drugs seem awesome.

Earlier this year, Urban Outfitters launched its own prescription-themed product line that included syringelike shot glasses, and flasks designed to look like bottles of medications. In the script on a beer cozy, users were advised, “Take one can by mouth, repeat until intoxicated.” (Urban Outfitters has been a frequent target of criticism for products that some have viewed as offensive, including an “Obama Black” T-shirt, an EAT LESS tank that depicted an emaciated model in a miniskirt, and a game, Ghettopoly, with bonus cards that had messages like “You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50.”) This company’s drug-themed products one-up Kitson’s, because they simultaneously advertised two drugs, prescription pills and alcohol, which in combination are more dangerous than either on its own.

Angry protesters waged Facebook and Twitter attacks on the company, just as they’re currently targeting Kitson and the clothing line’s designer, Brian Lichtenberg. The constituency of people enraged by products that make light of drugs or, worse, glorify them, is not one with which any prudent company would want to tangle. Many are parents who have lost children to prescription medications. They’ve been flooding Kitson’s Facebook page for the past two weeks. A typical post reads: “As a grieving parent who lost my youngest son to an overdose of Xanax and Vicodin I find your promotion of the non-medical use of prescription drugs to be pathetic.” Another: “You obviously haven’t had a son or daughter die in your home from an overdose on prescription pills, as I have.”

Many parents have posted photographs of their children who have overdosed and died. Every photograph — each child shining with the promise of a long and productive life — has a simple caption:

“This is my son. He died from a drug overdose. You make me sick with your merchandise.”

“Salvatore Marchese, 4-11-84 to 9-23-10.”

“Here’s my son Jarrod. He WAS 19.”

“Zachary Parsons (23) 1988-2011.”

“Jacquilynne July 14, 1978 — August 21, 2012”

Lichtenberg responded on Facebook, defending his collection as “simply a commentary on what I see happening in our society.” He said, “Mission accomplished” [if the shirts] “open the door to a much-needed dialogue.” Kitson released a statement that it would donate proceeds from the shirts to Partnership at Drugfree.org’s Medicine Abuse Project, but the organization rejected the offer as long as Kitson “flagrantly, and without remorse, continue[s] to sell these products.” The organization’s president, Steve Pasierb, wrote to Kitson CEO Christopher Lee, “Tongue-in-cheek products that normalize and promote prescription drug abuse only serve to reinforce the misperception about the danger associated with abusing medicine and put more teens at risk.”

The bereaved parents and many others also contacted the pharmaceutical companies that sell the medications. Xanax producer Pfizer said that it’s considering legal action. Shire, manufacturer of Adderall, said in a statement, “The use of ‘Adderall’ by Kitson in this manner represents an unauthorized use of Shire’s ‘Adderall’ trademark. Further…it gravely concerns Shire as it glorifies the misuse and diversion of a federally controlled prescription drug for the treatment of ADHD…. Shire is currently assessing its options to address this unauthorized use of the Shire trademark ‘Adderall.’ ”

One champion of the cause has been the actress Kristen Johnston, star of the sitcoms The Exes and Third Rock From The Sun and the author of the addiction memoir Guts. Johnston has rallied her fans and followers online. Her initial missives about the drug-themed shirts were tempered, written to inform Kitson and Lichtenberg about the problem of prescription-drug abuse. In response, the company posted on its Facebook page a comment that’s testament to public relations and marketing at its most ill-advised: “We will stop selling the t-shirts in question if tv [sic] networks agree to stop accepting ad revenue from prescription drug companies. We invite Kristen Johnston to join us in this call to action since she is a working actress on a show owned by a national network, and actors’ salaries are directly affected by advertising revenue.”

Not able to leave well enough alone, Kitson also went after Today Show coanchor Tamron Hall, who, during a report on Kitson’s drug-themed shirts last week, called the company irresponsible, saying, “People should probably not shop there until they get that [the drug shirts] out.” Kitson filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, which raises a question: By fueling the flame, are the company’s executives cynically calculating that even bad publicity is good publicity? On the show, Hall said, “Think about how many kids are dying.”

Between the lawsuit threats and public outcry, it’s probably only a matter of time before Kitson caves. Urban Outfitters did, though even as the company pulled the offensive products, its attitude about it was snarky, dismissing those who complained as too square to understand products “that represent humor, satire, and hyperbole.” The company’s press release continued, “We recognize that from time to time there may be individual items that are misinterpreted by people who are not our customers.” It’s impossible to know if many Urban Outfitters customers, including not a few receptive young teenagers, grokked the subtlety or irony in the products that would have them squirting tequila out of syringes down their throats (LOL!). Certainly there’s nothing subtle or ironic about teenagers shooting dope, swallowing OxyContin, or downing a dozen Jäger shots.

As long as there’s a drug problem in America, it’s likely that protests against whatever products and media glamorize drug misuse will continue. Already, legislators and other politicians have been enlisted to speak out against those who feed youth culture with overt and subliminal messages that idealize getting high. On September 6, the attorneys general in Florida, Kentucky, and Maine weighed in the about Kitson matter. Florida AG Pamela Bondi said, “Your tee shirts do not ‘open the door to a dialogue,’ as the designer claims, and donating some or all of the profits to a non-profit does not make this bad idea better.”

It’s typical of companies, actors, filmmakers, musicians, and other artists to defend their right to portray drugs (or guns, or sex) in whatever ways they want, as Kitson did, citing artistic freedom and railing against censorship. And like Lichtenberg, they commonly maintain — and genuinely may believe — that they have no influence on behavior and attitudes, that they’re just reflecting drug use, not promoting it.

Their arguments are, at best, disingenuous. The protestors against Kitson aren’t calling for censorship; in America, we don’t censor people for being callous, stupid, mercenary, immature, or grossly irresponsible. But it’s patently false to claim that pop culture doesn’t influence kids. They help normalize and romanticize drug use.

Obviously images and media aren’t at the root of America’s drug problem—it’s infinitely more complicated — but they contribute to it. Studies have long shown that media messages have a pronounced impact on childhood risk behaviors. For example, a study of 16,000 teenagers in six European countries found that the more that kids saw drinking in movies, the more likely they were to binge drink. When Snoop Dogg raps about smoking endo (marijuana) and sipping on gin and juice, it sounds sublime. Some of the better Seth Rogen stoner movies make me want to get high.

Advertising and product placement work. Heineken wouldn’t have paid the creators of the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, $45 million to have Daniel Craig eschew his usual martini in favor of a beer if it had no impact on viewers. When there’s a Heineken in Craig’s hand, the brand seems fashionable and sophisticated. Emblazoned on a designer’s $98 sweatshirt, Vicodin does, too. The Kitson T-shirts, with their hidden wink-wink-we’re-so-fabulous-in-the-know-and-fuck-off-if-you-don’t-like-it messages, reinforce a culture in which drugs are hip, drug users have all the fun, and those who abstain are nerds and losers.

Whether or not Kitson pulls the drug-themed shirts, it’s naive to think that companies and artists will stop depicting drug misuse positively and, subtly or overtly, promoting it. Meanwhile, the outcry from enraged parents and others who want to protect children will become louder. Ironically, these offensive products serve the parents’ cause in one way: They unify angry people who rally together, and the movement builds.

Their desire isn’t for censorship, but responsibility.

What will it take for a head of an apparel company, studio executive, director, designer, musician, music-label chief, or actor to draw a line and refuse to participate in anything that makes it seem totally cool to get wasted? I hope it doesn’t take what drives many of the protesters: the death of someone they love.