By Nancy Keates, The Wall Street Journal
The governor of Illinois did it live on a radio show. Two NBA players were chastised for videotaping it. A school in Pennsylvania banned open-top boots because of it.
What is it? Swallowing cinnamon.
The so-called cinnamon challenge—a dare to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon without water—has gone viral and beyond. Though the challenge has been around for years, its popularity has spiked recently, to the amusement—or puzzlement—of many.
Some 30,000 videos tagged "cinnamon challenge" have been uploaded on to YouTube. The most popular, with almost nine million views, was uploaded last month; it shows a woman with big earrings slurping a pile of brown powder from a soup ladle and immediately, dramatically, spitting it out. A fit of coughing follows.
The difficulty is that the spice doesn't break down very fast and can get stuck in the throat, causing gagging and even vomiting. Doctors say this can be dangerous because the cinnamon can prevent air from reaching the lungs. "It is an obvious choking hazard and there is a risk of inhaling the dust. This certainly is not advisable," says a spokesman from the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Jeffrey Cain, president-elect for the American Academy of Family Physicians, says the cinnamon itself isn't dangerous—but inflammation of the lungs is a real possibility. That, and being laughed at, he says.
As a result, schools from Alabama to Guam are warning parents and staff about the potential dangers of swallowing so much cinnamon at once. "The kids all know about this from the Internet but the parents have no idea," says Arthur Williams, principal at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., who emailed parents after a student was recently hospitalized for 4½ days because of lung trouble after trying the challenge.
Pottstown Middle School in Pottstown, Pa., which has had three reported incidents of students taking the cinnamon challenge on campus since January, caught a student trying to smuggle a vial of cinnamon into school in a pair of boots. The school subsequently put a ban "open-top boots," also intended to stop cellphone smuggling.
"Young people looking for an exciting challenge that could lead to danger is an age-old problem," says John Armato, 64, community relations director for the Pottstown School District. "It just spreads faster now."
It isn't just kids who are doing it. Adults, too, often attract attention inhaling cinnamon.
"He's unbelievable. I don't believe what he just did. The Governor, I bow before you," shouted Jonathon Brandmeier, host of WGN-AM radio in Chicago in February, after Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn swallowed cinnamon on air. Mr. Quinn casually raised the spoon to his mouth, ate the cinnamon and then took a big swig of bottled water without a twitch. He then recited a line he often uses: "The will of the people. The law of the land."
A spokesperson for the governor says he was taken by surprise when asked to attempt the challenge.
Some do it to raise their online presence. "I wanted the views. I have to do things like torture myself to keep people watching," says Colleen Ballinger, a 25-year-old comedian whose stage name is Miranda Sings, about her decision to upload her cinnamon challenge attempt. Ms. Ballinger makes money from a percentage of advertising on her YouTube videos. She has 90,000 subscribers to her YouTube channels and a total of 22 million views on her videos.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of fans started asking her to take the cinnamon challenge, she says. Others advised against it.
Ms. Ballinger did it anyway. "I thought everyone was being dramatic. But you really do feel like you're suffocating," she says. Her video garnered 70,000 views after one week of posting it.
A video uploaded last fall by Washington Wizards players—guard Nick Young and center JaVale McGee—doing the cinnamon challenge was rebroadcast on ABC's "Good Morning America" as an example of what players were doing during the NBA lockout. The action begins with a close-up of teaspoonfuls of cinnamon and ends with Mr. McGee spitting it out and doubling over.
"The biggest thing is they're not young players anymore. So they have to show the discipline, maturity, not only on the floor but off the floor," Flip Saunders, the team coach at the time, told reporters at a news conference about the video. A team spokesman declined to comment. A representative for Mr. Young declined to comment, and a representative for Mr. McGee didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chuck Conry says he tried it because he also didn't think it could be as bad as everyone made it out to be. The 29-year-old caregiver and online film reviewer from Beech Grove, Tenn., who doesn't even like cinnamon, describes the experience as similar to "putting a big pile of dirt into your mouth, but with a burn to it." Once he started filming it, "there was no way I was going to spit it out."
Twitter users offer themselves up as candidates to try the cinnamon challenge on the condition that they get a certain number of "RT"s or "retweets" by other Twitter users—a method of spreading a message more widely that can have the effect of gaining the original Tweeter more followers and earning them online recognition.
The number of times "cinnamon challenge" was mentioned on Twitter went from fewer than 20 per day before December to around 1,000 per day, according to Topsy Labs, a social-media analytics firm in San Francisco. Then it started to really pick up, peaking at just under 70,000 mentions on Jan. 23.
Cinnamon videos continue to roll in. Many of the videos uploaded on YouTube in the past couple of months are from several years ago.
Helping fuel the fire is a Feb. 28 skit on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" getting attention online. Set up as a riff on the Academy Awards. Mr. Kimmel announced a new category: "Achievement in Cinnamontography" and showed three popular cinnamon challenge videos that were on YouTube.
The first showed the woman with big earrings raising a soup ladleful of cinnamon to her mouth: The cinnamon comes right back out. The second video, featuring two women, was also a failure. The winner: a successful attempt by a man who then threw a chair in the air and jumped around his apartment.
"Finally, they give an award to a movie we've seen," quipped Mr. Kimmel.
Write to Nancy Keates at email@example.com