The Cherry Chap Stick seemed harmless enough--he got it from his parents, after all, and his lips were dry from skiing. Little did he know he had started "down a path of misery."
"I was using it a dozen times a day," said Kevin C., creator of the Lip Balm Anonymous Web site (http://www.kevdo.com/lipbalm), which bills itself as a forum for habitual users of Chap Stick, Carmex, Blistex and other balms.
"It was such a habit, I wouldn't really think about it. It was very subconscious," said Kevin C., who, in true 12-step tradition, doesn't give his last name on the site.
He said he started using as a child but quit cold turkey and created the organization whose members pledge "to stay free from lip balm and to help others achieve the same freedom."
Kevin C. is really the online alter ego of Kevin Crossman, a 33-year-old Fremont, Calif., resident who created the Web site in December 1995.
"I was addicted to lip balm, actually," Crossman said. "I wanted to make a little bit of a niche on the Web and have a little fun. That was my first real Web site. No way would I think I'd be talking about it five years later."
Depending on how you care to view it, the Lip Balm Anonymous site is either the forum for a surprisingly large group that shares a common compulsion, or an elaborate joke that's as dry as a pair of chapped lips and that dozens of people are in on.
"Lip-balm addiction is obviously a very serious problem, so any humorous reading is a very serious misinterpretation of the message," Crossman said, unable to suppress his own laughter.
The vast site features histories of the various balm brands and a test to determine whether you're balm-dependent. The site also features messages from people discussing their dependence, and a page called "I Hate LBA."
Whether or not Lip Balm Anonymous is real, the vitriol on that page certainly is.
Some critics are genuinely offended by the site's parody of 12-step addiction recovery programs, which they say help people with serious problems. They insist that the site does a disservice to those with real health problems affecting their lips.
Others simply don't get the joke. That is, if it is a joke.
"I don't usually waste my time slamming idiots. You just really caught my attention with one of the silliest Web sites and largest waste[s] of time and energy I've ever had the misfortune to happen upon," wrote one critic.
"What is the problem with you people?" asked another. "Were you dropped on your heads as infants?"
Crossman said he's only too happy to publish the criticisms. "It only makes the person look all the more ridiculous," he said.
Working at the time as a corporate librarian, Crossman embarked on Web site design as a hobby. But it turned into more; he now manages a team of Web developers at an Internet head-hunting firm in the Bay Area.
Even after five years, he said, Lip Balm Anonymous still gets a thousand hits a week and two to five e-mails daily.
"It's the site that won't go away," he said. "It definitely strikes a chord with some people."
Steve Carney is a freelance writer.