Tobacco is bad, so is cocaine. Yet it has taken the nation a long time to reach those realizations. For a good part of American history, both drugs were widely heralded in popular and even in medical circles.
In colonial times, tobacco was not only tolerated but viewed as therapeutic. William Byrd II, a wealthy tobacco planter from Virginia, reflected popular sentiment when he noted, "The pass to our stomachs should be . . . safely defended by chewing this great anti-poison very frequently." Moreover, Byrd contended that the leaf had other medicinal attributes:
"I am humbly of opinion," he wrote, "that when there is any danger of pestilence, we can't more effectually consult our preservation than by providing ourselves with a reasonable quantity of fresh, strong-scented tobacco. We should wear it about our clothes and about our coaches. We should hang bundles of it round our bed, and in the apartments wherein we most converse. If we have an aversion to smoking, it would be very prudent to burn some leaves of tobacco in our dining rooms . . . It will also be very useful to take snuff plentifully made of the pure leaf to secure the passages to our brain."
After the American Revolution, Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, one of the few American doctors of his time with an earned medical degree, led an unsuccessful anti-tobacco crusade. The effort was revived in the early 1800s, largely by religious leaders. It was the obligation of "every Christian," wrote one, "of every minister of Christ, to abstain himself immediately and forever from all use of tobacco."
But there was considerable medical opinion in support of tobacco, which was regarded as helpful in easing toothaches.
In the late 1800s, anti-tobacco forces seized upon the growth of cigarette smoking and fears that youngsters and women would become users. "The relation of tobacco," noted Century magazine in 1912, "especially in the form of cigarettes, and alcohol and opium is a very close one . . . Morphine is the legitimate consequence of alcohol, and alcohol is the legitimate consequence of tobacco."
As states restricted liquor, they also passed anti-cigarette laws. Nine states had such bans by 1913, but medical opinion was supportive. "The history of human experience," wrote a Brooklyn physician, "as well as the results of exhaustive investigations conducted by men highly trained in scientific research, point to the fact that the moderate use of smoking tobacco is not harmful to either the body or mind." Other doctors pointed to tobacco's "soothing or sedative effect."
As enforcement of restrictive laws became difficult, states found a compromise. Beginning with Iowa in 1921, they began taxing cigarettes. State and municipal levies became significant revenue sources, with 38 states by 1948 collecting $340 million annually.
Of course, after the landmark U.S. Surgeon General's report in 1964 and the subsequent restriction of tobacco ads, the medical community united against the leaf.
Like the early history of tobacco, the coca leaf and its derivative, cocaine, were widely heralded a century ago. Physicians touted cocaine as a cure for alcoholism and morphine addiction, as well as for sore throats, fatigue, depression, seasickness and nervousness. Surgeons noted that cocaine anesthesia was especially useful in eye operations where general anesthesia was unsatisfactory. And a few physicians were impressed with the favorable effects of cocaine on European athletes.
In 1885, one American pharmaceutical company official contended that cocaine "will indeed be the most important therapeutic discovery of the age, the benefit of which to humanity will be incalculable."
Coca leaf extracts found their way into numerous over-the-counter products. A French wine, Vin Mariani, may have been the biggest commercial success. First distributed in 1863 and bearing the surname of a Corsican chemist, the wine had .10 grains of cocaine per ounce. It drew the praise of 8,000 physicians, two popes and American presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley, as well as Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison hailed the wine for prolonging his workday.
Cola products with coca proliferated by the 1890s under such names as Doctor Don's Kola, Delicious Dopeless Koca Nola, Inca Cola and Kumforts Coke Extract. An early ad for Coca-Cola stressed the drink's value as a "Brain Tonic, and a cure for all nervous affections."
The euphoria was short-lived, however. Cases of cocaine intoxication became more conspicuous than the drug's alleged cures. By 1900, abuse and addiction were widespread, in part because of patent medicines that contained high levels of cocaine. Dr. Tucker's Asthma Specific, for example, sometimes contained 7 grains per ounce.
One medical journal, the New York Medical Record, lamented in 1886 that "no medical technique with such a short history has claimed so many victims as cocaine." What had been hailed as a wonder drug joined alcohol and morphine as the "three scourges of mainkind."
Fortunately, medical technology gave rise to less harmful substitutes for cocaine, such as Novocain, an anesthetic developed in 1899.
By 1914, 46 states had passed anti-cocaine laws. In the same year, the Harrison Narcotic Act signaled the federal government's entry as a cocaine regulator. But as national prohibition of alcohol took effect, illegal use of cocaine skyrocketed. The 1920s roared, and in more ways than one.
The medical verdict against cocaine use did not end the drug's illegal trade, which grew as the 20th century progressed. In contrast, tobacco use declined after the 1964 Surgeon General's report.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University.