“Pick A Powder” RIP?

BC Powder Historic Site, Durham, NC. Photo: David Kroll

I wrote this post on April 15th for my monthly gig at the Science-Based Medicine blog but just thought of it again this weekend as I drove past the BC Powder historic building in downtown Durham, NC. One thing I've observed since bringing Terra Sig to CENtral Science last summer is that we get a readership that is distinctly different than what I have seen when blogging in more biomedical environs (at least as far as institutional IP address hits tell me on SiteMeter.) So, I wanted to update this post for you - Dear C&EN/CENtral Science reader - and add a few pictures. Truth be told, I really like this post in part because I love the pharmacy history of the American South. I also think that we could do a better job down here of using NASCAR enthusiasm to promote careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The following is adapted from a post that appeared originally on 15 April 2011 at Science-Based Medicine. After spending the first 21 years of life in New Jersey and Philadelphia, I ventured to the University of Florida for graduate school. For those who don't know, UF is in the north-central Florida city of Gainesville - culturally much more like idyllic south Georgia than flashy south Florida. It was in Gainesville - "Hogtown" to some - that I first encountered the analgesic powder. I believe it was BC Powder, first manufactured just over 100 years ago within a stone's throw of the Durham, NC, baseball park made famous by the movie, Bull Durham. I remember sitting with my grad school buddy from Kansas City watching this TV commercial with hardy men possessing strong Southern accents enthusiastically espousing the benefits of BC. I looked at Roger - a registered pharmacist - and asked, "what in the hell is an analgesic powder?" What I learned is that powders of analgesic compounds were one of the individual trademark products of Southern pharmacies during the early 1900s. Here's the simple reason from an NCPedia reprint of a Suzanne Mewborn article entitled, Inventive Spirit: Pain Relief, in the Fall 2006 issue of Tar Heel Junior Historian:
It was very common for druggists in the early 1900s to buy raw materials and make their own prescriptions. Pills were harder for the local druggist to make, so pain-relief powders developed as a regional heritage.
Many of these powders became quite popular with mill and textile workers needing to calm headaches induced by long hot days with loud machinery. The original powders contained a precursor to acetaminophen called phenacetin (also shown in the old photo as acetophenetidin - good chemists know it as N-(4-ethoxyphenyl)acetamide).

Photo taken from a NCPedia entry on headache powders. Click on the photo to go to that page.

However, phenacetin was found to cause renal papillary necrosis, such as in this 1964 case report in Annals of Internal Medicine. Today, most of these powders are comprised of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine. This combination has also been adopted outside of the powder world with Excedrin's migraine product the most popular of these. This 2010 review in the European Journal of Neurology covers the historical ground that tends to support the greater combined efficacy of this combination in headache and migraine than with monotherapy of any alone. However, I still have yet to find a convincing mechanistic explanation to account for the well-documented analgesic potentiation activity of caffeine. Nevertheless, this combination as a powder is a cultural tradition of Southern pharmacy. Unfolding one of these packets in public in the northern US is a sure-fire way to attract suspicious eyes wondering if you are a cocaine addict. In the South, you either mix these with water and slam it back - the idea being that the powder form is absorbed more quickly than a tablet or capsule that needs to disintegrate in the gastrointestinal tract. However, the bitter taste of these compounds reminds me of why they were first formulated into tablets that had a very short residence time in the mouth. In 1977, Goody's powder became one of the first non-automotive sponsors of a NASCAR racer, beginning a long relationship with NC native and current resident, Richard Petty, a relationship that continues today. For fun, you have to read the page at Goody's on how to take a powder:
How to take a powder Let’s face it, Goody’s works incredibly fast because they’re powders, but that also means that they’re kind of different to take. There are three general approaches, but feel free to add your own personal touches. The Dump and Chase Probably the most popular technique. Open up the paper wrapper, fold it over, dump quickly on the back of your tongue and chase right down with your favorite drink. There, now that wasn’t so hard… The Stir 'N Sip A technique preferred by the less adventurous. Just mix your Goody’s into a glass of water, juice or soda. Then drink up. The Tough Guy This is how The King does it. Very simple. Open it, fold, dump on your tongue and swallow. Then, very casually continue whatever you were doing. How to take a powder tips
  • The farther back on your tongue, the better.
  • Fold wrapper so all the powder leaves the wrapper at once.
  • Don’t inhale through your mouth with powder in there. It could get ugly.
  • Beginners generally need a bit of coaching. Be gentle with them.
  • Got a great technique? Shoot us an email and we may share it here.
Yes, folks, The King (Petty, not Elvis) does The Tough Guy. Guess what? I tried to do The Tough Guy. I think I ended up with an esophageal erosion. But why do I write this post other than because I'm a natural products pharmacologist living in the South? [On April 14th], I learned from Raleigh News & Observer business editor, Alan Wolf, that GlaxoSmithKline is jettisoning 19 of their consumer health products, including Goody's and BC. From Wolf's post:
"Individually, the brands to be divested have strong heritage and good prospects, but GSK has lacked sufficient critical mass in some product categories and certain brands have lacked focus due to other global priorities," GSK wrote in a statement. "GSK therefore believes that other companies are better placed to maximise the potential they offer."
I actually hadn't known that GSK owned both powder brands. But it now makes sense to me. As recently as last summer, there had been a "Pick A Powder" battle online (at pickapowder.com, surprisingly) between Goody's Richard Petty and BC's country singer, Trace Adkins. Clever marketing: take your own products and pit them against one another with a fabricated battle between two celebrities that appeal to distinct but overlapping demographic groups.

Image of the "Pick A Powder" campaign by GSK Consumer Products. The screenshot is taken from the workpage site of designer Aaron Cacali. Aaron worked with Publicis-Dallas to create this clever marketing campaign that incorporates social media to corral the enthusiasm of NASCAR and country-music fans. Click on the photo to go to Aaron's design site.

But this rivalry isn't all fun and games. Petty's team raises money for Victory Junction Camp, established in honor of his son, Adam, to provide enriching experiences for kids with chronic or serious illnesses; Adkins raises money for the Wounded Warrior Project, a comprehensive non-profit program that serves our brave men and women injured in combat. Hopefully, the companies that pick up these colorful, historic powders of Southern pharmacy will keep the rivalry and public service going on. But my recommendation to all: no need to be "adventurous." There's no shame in "The Stir 'N Sip." For further reading, The North Carolina History Project has separate entries for Goody's and B.C. powders.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Never you roamed Leigh Hall… nice to know whom I’ve been reading the past few months.

  2. KY Proud – I’m assuming you are a Kappa Psi pharmacist and/or med chemist?

    Alas, I only went to Leigh Hall for chemistry seminars. I did my graduate work “down the hill” at the J Hillis Miller Health Center in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. We shared part of our wing with medicinal chemists from the College of Pharmacy. But I developed my interests in natural products chemistry with a then-brand new prof, Tom Rowe, who used natural products like camptothecin, doxorubicin, and semi-synthetics like etoposide to prove the action of type I and II DNA topoisomerases.

    Many a wonderful day spent in Gainesville, particularly at The Purple Porpoise Oyster Bar (now Gator City, but College Inn back in 1905).

  3. Wow, David — you explained something in one of the favorite novels of my teenage years, John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” When the protagonist orders headache powders after a long night of drinking, I always wondered what was in them… (http://bit.ly/ihk0FY)

  4. CJ, thanks so much for sending along the Google Books link – I had not known that Grisham wrote about headache powders. Not surprising since he is a Mississippian and splits his time between Oxford, MS, and Charlottesville, VA.

    There was also a buzz in our neck of the woods in 2008 when he and his wife bought a condominium across from the UNC-Chapel Hill campus (Triangle Business Journal).

    So, I can see that he is probably intimately familiar with headache powders.

  5. BC Powder is what I’ve used all my life for headaches, and it’s the only thing that works for them. This was the case for my mother and my grandmother as well. A couple years ago they changed the formula and took out one of the main ingredients Salicylamide 195 mg and now it just doesn’t work anymore. I snatched up all the ‘old formula’ boxes off the shelves I could find when I noticed that it had changed, but now they’re expired and I’m running out. The formula worked for decades. I can’t find any other medicine with the same combination in it, so I think my next step may be going to a ‘druggist’ to have them ‘make me some’. These days, it’s probably an expensive proposition.