You might have seen them in your local convenience store, with colorful packaging and catchy names: iChill, Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda, Drank, Vacation in a Bottle, and Blue Cow.
They're "relaxation" drinks, the newest addition to the beverage industry. Unlike beverages that guarantee an energy boost, relaxation drinks promise to help people unwind.
With packaging that's clearly marketed to young people -- palm trees and sunsets that suggest spring break; Facebook and Twitter featured on the products' Web sites; a name that invokes marijuana -- the drinks are raising concerns that the teen and 20-something crowd may be getting the wrong message.
"We'd be better off if we learn to cope naturally instead of artificially," said Scott Basinger, the assistant dean at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston for extramural affairs, who specializes in substance abuse. "It's the most bizarre way of managing your emotions, through pharmacology and chemistry, rather than the natural way, which is by dealing with the issues in front of you."
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a practicing pediatric nutritionist and associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, agrees. "These drinks will do nothing to change the cause of the stress," he said. "People should look for reasons why they have stress and not for help from some sugary drink with herbs."
Drinking to relieve stress, of course, is nothing new. Chris MacDonald, a philosophy and business ethics professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, finds cause for concern with some drinks' targeting adolescents by comparing their effects with those of marijuana and what MacDonald calls the "universal relaxation drink": alcohol.
The youth demographic "seems willing to spend on new products, unlike their parents or grandparents' generation," MacDonald said. "It's legal. And the adult relaxation drinks are not available to those under 21.
"My main concern was that there were uncertain quantities of poorly understood herbal extracts being marketed as something that would be physiologically effective on your body and brain," he added.
The drinks generally contain a variety of those herbs and other ingredients -- valerian root, rose hips, melatonin, kava for example -- that don't necessarily need to be regulated.
The Federal Drug Administration is aware of drinks containing these ingredients, according to spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey. Valerian root is an approved food additive, and rose hips are labeled "Generally Regarded As Safe," or GRAS. But not all ingredients in relaxation drinks have been cleared by the FDA -- and don't need to be in order to be available on the market.
"A company can make what is called a 'self-GRAS determination,'" DeLancey wrote in an e-mail. "The FDA can take regulatory action if it determines that the substance is not truly GRAS for the intended use. At present, we have not done this with melatonin in [some] so-called 'relaxation drinks.'"
Aaron Treptow, 21, an accounting student at Arizona State University, tried one of the drinks by accident—mistaking its package design for an energy drink. His recollection is of feeling "slightly tired," as if the drink raised his "heartbeat at first," but then after a half hour, "it was like I didn't have anything."
But he does see the marketing as effective. The drinks do come with warnings—suggestions that children under 12 not drink one, those under 18 not have more than one; or that servings per day be limited. "I think that the warnings are going to actually give ideas to kids to try and drink more to see how it will affect them, almost like a legal marijuana, as it is being nick-named."
Manufacturers maintain that the quantities of the ingredients in these drinks are not harmful. But Ayoob is skeptical: "If there isn't much of either ingredient, then it is just another sugary drink with a gimmick. If there's a significant amount of either ingredient, and there might be because of the claims they're making and the warnings, then I'd advise people to avoid this drink."
Matt Moody, the CEO and founder of Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda, said his friends asked him about the sensation his product creates for some consumers and marijuana (which goes by the nickname "Mary Jane") came to mind. "I imagine it probably does help, but it's not something we're going for," he said. "I would never compare it and say it's the same thing. It's just the closest comparison." In terms of sales, he admitted, the drug reference has had an impact.
Peter Bianchi, the CEO of Innovative Beverage Group, the company that created Drank, acknowledges the comparison with "Purple Drank" or "Sizzurp," an often-potent mixture of cough syrup and grape-flavored soda, which became popular in Southern hip-hop circles.
"Our fans, as well as critics, have given Drank this moniker, and while we can't deny that it seems to be moving cans, the product's success ultimately comes from its ability to provide relaxation," he said.
John Sicher, publisher for Beverage Digest, said it's too early to tell if sales of relaxation drinks will live up to the expectations of their promoters. "The products are very small. And it's probably two or three years too early to know if it's going to be any kind of trend."
Some reports are in: Vacation in a Bottle, for instance, reports an increase in sales of 252 percent this year over last year, and is expected to reach sales of $6 million by May 2010. Innovative Beverage Group, which produces Drank, announced revenues of more than $1.6 million for the second quarter in 2009, a 228 percent increase over last year's second quarter.
Companies are banking on the fact that people may be looking for ways to relax.
"Energy is overdone and stores and companies are looking for new market trends that are untapped," Greg Figueroa, the CEO of iChill, said.
"Our world is becoming increasingly targeted towards pharmaceuticals: If you're depressed take this, if you're feeling sick take this, if you're in a bad mood take this, etc.," William Sullivan, a 25-year-old Phoenix resident and graduate of Arizona State University who's searching for work in his field, geology. "I believe we send the wrong message to ourselves, trying to find quick fixes for everything, instead of doing what is right, and trying to find a long-term cure."