Absinthe--Is Its History Relevant for Current Public Health?

Martijn Huisman; Johannes Brug; Johan Mackenbach

Disclosures

Int J Epidemiol. 2007;36(4):738-744. 

In This Article

Absinthe -- Its History and Parallels with Smoking

Absinthe is an emerald coloured liquor, with a distinctive bitter taste, and high concentrations of alcohol (~70%). In its traditional form, it is said to have some mild hallucinatory qualities, which cannot be found in any other liquor.[1,2,3] It is often associated with bohemian artistic life during 19th century in France, with the life of painters and poets, and nowadays quite some reference is made to it in popular culture again. Absinthe currently, if anything else, is being associated with romance and mystique. Yet, the history of absinthe presents an interesting story for those who are interested in public health as well. Absinthe drinking in France was quite common in the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, until it was banned there in 1915. From the view of public health, absinthe drinking in this period should be seen in the broader context of alcohol use, and alcoholism, but public and political sentiments at the time singled out absinthe in particular in the polemic against the social problems related to alcoholism, while ignoring other beverages like wine, which was often more widely used than absinthe.[4]

It is this latter aspect of the public reaction against absinthe that is of interest to public health professionals. It shows how general norms and values changed within a time frame of several decades, from widespread acceptance and use of a specific substance, to political indignation leading up to a complete ban of the substance. Currently, most countries in the EU have lifted their ban on absinthe, although the amount of the ingredient that has been linked to its hallucinatory effects -- thujone -- that is allowed in absinthe production nowadays is under strict EU regulations. However, this article is concerned primarily with the history of absinthe and parallels of this history with that of tobacco.

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