NEW YORK – One of the hottest-selling T-shirts around the country shows a simply drawn snowman with a menacing expression.
It's not Frosty's evil twin. The image popularized by drug-dealer-turned-rapper Young Jeezy (search) symbolizes those who sell a white substance known on the street as snow: cocaine.
Anti-drug campaigners and education officials are alarmed, saying the T-shirt and others like it are part of sophisticated marketing campaigns using coded symbols for drug culture that parents and teachers are not likely to understand. Some schools are banning kids from wearing the snowman images.
"The snowman is made of white, grainy stuff like sugar," said 12-year-old seventh-grader Mailik Mason, standing next to his mother in a Manhattan store selling the snowman shirts. "It has to do with a certain drug, crack or coke."
Young Jeezy's hit debut album, "Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101," peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts. On one of his songs he raps, "Get it? Jeezy the Snowman / I'm iced out, plus I got that snow, man."
The shirt was first produced solely for Jeezy by Miskeen Originals (search), a hip-hop fashion firm in New Jersey, the company says. The owner, Yaniv Zaken, says his artists produced a handful for the rapper to wear on TV appearances.
They then sold a larger batch to retailers, but pulled them when Zaken discovered that his employees had not licensed the T-shirt from Jeezy.
"I wasn't sure what the snowman meant until the artist explained to me that it was a drug dealer, the man delivering snow," Zaken said. "Now everyone is selling the snowman — all unlicensed. It's become a street-hood hit worldwide."
A spokesman for Young Jeezy's record label, Def Jam Records (search), confirmed that the rapper held the rights to the snowman image but declined to comment on complaints that it was sending children the wrong message.
"This is part of a phenomena in which parents have no idea what their children are exposed to. There is a code that children are aware of but not parents," says Sue Rusche, president and CEO of the anti-drug group National Families In Action.
Rusche's organization has tried to pressure companies that they believed were targeting children with drug messages, like fashion companies marketing "heroin chic" in the 1990s. She was unaware of the snowman T-shirt.
Mason says he'd like to have a snowman T-shirt — but that his school in Brooklyn has banned it. His mother, Autherine Mason, 34, said she had been unaware of the snowman's meaning and wouldn't buy it for her son now that she knows.
Dr. Gilbert Botvin, director of the Institute for Prevention Research at Cornell University Medical College, has been studying what influences children to use drugs and alcohol. He believes that pop culture does play a role.
"The research tells us that influences coming from the media can have a profound effect on kids and influence them to use drugs," he says. "All of these things help to convey the impression that engaging in these behaviors using drugs is normal and that drugs might help you be successful or sexy or something."
Botvin says parents need to educate themselves about the media their kids are consuming and pressure schools to monitor what messages they allow students to advertise.
But sometimes it's hard to overcome the buzz on the street.
Ali Kourani, a Manhattan wholesale salesman, says the T-shirt is their top seller across the country.
"It's big money," Kourani said.