Thursday, January 12, 2006
At the Start, the ‘Real Thing’ in Coca-Cola Was Cocaine
By ROGER M. GRACE
It’s no coincidence that “Coke” is the nickname both of Coca-Cola and cocaine. When the soft drink was first served at soda fountains in the late 1880s, one of its principal ingredients was the extract of the coca plant—that is, cocaine.
In fact, a patron at a soda fountain (or “fount,” as it was then abbreviated) was as apt to call for “dope” as to request “Coke.”
It cannot be doubted that Coca-Cola gained popularity as the result of its “coca,” as well as caffeine, obtained in some part from the African “cola” (or “kola”) nut.
As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in a 1920 opinion for the United States Supreme Court, “[b]efore 1900 the beginning of the good will” for Coca-Cola “was more or less helped by the presence of cocaine, a drug that, like alcohol of caffein or opium, may be described as a deadly poison or as a valuable item of the pharmacopoeia according to the rhetorical purposes in view.”
The Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Sign of the Four” was written in 1890. By then, the medical profession—which included author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—was gaining an awareness of the dangers of cocaine. Yet, Holmes brushed aside Dr. Watson’s reproachment over his use of the drug, saying:
“I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.”
Holmes went on to declare:
“I crave for mental exaltation.”
It was that effect that those promoting Coca-Cola seized upon. The drink was advertised as “The Ideal Brain Tonic.”
It was represented also as an “ideal nerve tonic and stimulant” and as a cure for “headache, neuralgia, hysteria, and melancholy” as well as “nervous afflictions.”
An “article”—seemingly in the nature of a newspaper version of what is nowadays termed on television an “infommercial”—appeared on Dec. 11, 1898 in the Atlanta Constitution, saying of Coca-Coca:
“Some have tried to create the impression that it contains baneful stimulants and dangerous poisons. But that is not so. Neither is it simply a nicely flavored syrup, but more, containing, as it does in a remarkable degree, the tonic properties of the wonderful Erythroxylon Coca Plant of South America, scientifically compounded with the celebrated African Cola nut. It forms at once a most delightful beverage and peerless remedial agent, renewing the vigor of the intellect, rendering the flow of thought easy and the reasoning power vigorous, conducting to mental clearness and activity, with freedom from fatigue and increased powers of endurance.”
The turn of the century was marked by intensified public concern over the safeness of products being consumed, that concern leading to enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Too, the temperance movement was escalating. These developments did not bode well for the makers of Coca-Cola.
They sought to strip the cocaine from the drink while retaining use of the coca plant, proceeding under the theory that the name “Coca-Cola” could not be retained unless the product contained some measure of both “coca” and “cola.”
Justice Holmes said in the 1920 opinion that the quantum of cocaine that had been contained in Coca-Cola initially “seems to have been very small, but it may have been enough to begin a bad habit.” He noted that “after the Food and Drug Act of June 30, 1906…, if not earlier…, it was eliminated from the plaintiff’s compound.”
Actually, it’s not certain whether cocaine had, in fact, been completely removed by 1920; there were conflicting laboratory results, apparently resulting from differing sophistication of equipment. According to some sources, there was, by 1902, still a smidgen of cocaine in the beverage—maybe 1/400 of a grain per ounce of syrup—and there was not a total removal until 1929.
In any event, it is clear that by 1902, Coca-Cola was no longer a health threat, no longer a form of “dope.” Nonetheless, Coke was subjected to mounting assaults in courts and in legislatures based on the notion that it was the same beverage it had always been.
Why? Because the makers of Coke would not forthrightly declare:
“Hey, look, our product used to contain cocaine, but we’ve done now everything we can to strip it of that substance, so don’t worry about its safety.”
Any such proclamation would have alleviated concerns over the current wholesomeness of the product…but would have constituted a confession that the beverage no longer possessed those properties that were, in the words of Holmes—Sherlock, not Oliver, that is—“clarifying to the mind.”
The Coca Cola Company proceeded to conduct a smoke-and-mirrors advertising campaign, steering clearing of any acknowledgement of a change in the formula of the drink while portraying any reference to cocaine in it as a vicious rumor. More about that next week.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company
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