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

Martijn Huisman; Johannes Brug; Johan Mackenbach


Int J Epidemiol. 2007;36(4):738-744. 

In This Article

Reactions from the Medical and Political Communities

It was with the changing social distribution that absinthe increasingly began to be regarded more and more as a social vice. Medical scientists were in the forefront of those who expressed worries about the consequences of widespread absinthe use. Doctors in France even debated on the existence of a specific disorder that was linked to the use of absinthe called absinthism.[3,5,26,27] Heavy users were said to experience constant feelings of uneasiness, anxiety, giddiness and constant tingling in the ears and often hallucinations of sight and hearing.[27] The question that many medical specialists were interested in was whether or not absinthe had any special effect on health other than the effect of alcohol itself which would indicate the existence of a specific syndrome, distinct from alcoholism. In order to demonstrate the existence of this syndrome, Dr Valentin Magnan, a physician to the Ste Anne Asylum in Paris conducted an experiment, where he had a dog ingest oil of wormwood. He noted that the effects of this essence of absinthe were qualitatively different from the effects observed when a dog was submitted to a dose of alcohol only. The doctor likened the effects of the absinthe essence in large doses to epileptic attacks: 'the animal loses consciousness, falls, and stiffens in the tonic convulsions which form the first stage of the fit. [...] To the tonic convulsions succeed, after the lapse of a few seconds, clonic convulsions, with snapping of the jaws, foam (sometimes bloody) on the lips, and biting of the tongue; and one sees the evacuation of urine and faecal matters, and even of semen, occur in some cases'.[28] Magnan published his findings in the Lancet in 1874.

The worries of doctors and psychiatrists gradually spread to the political community, where absinthe drinking and absinthe advertising (Figure 1) was attacked vehemently by some of its members (even though other politicians were more indifferent with regard to the status of absinthe, and others rose to its defence). Politicians worried that the French race was degenerating because of its fondness for the green liquor. Degeneration theory at that time was popular (Valentin Magnan was one of its proponents[29]) and it was believed that people who suffered from physical and mental symptoms because of overconsumption of absinthe would pass on these defects to their progeny. Thus, it was believed that 'absintheurs' would not only endanger their own health, but also that of others, and more importantly, that of the whole nation. These concerns should be understood against the background of animosity of the French with the Germans at the time. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 developed dramatically for the French and ended with a humiliating defeat, severely wounding French pride. And this was not forgotten with the dawn of a new century, when Franco-German relations were tense. The French race, so it seemed, was degenerating, and if no measures were taken, the French would have to bow again to the 'beer-bred Teuton'.[30]

Absinthe advertisement poster

Similar worries with regard to tobacco's effects on the public's health surfaced during Nazi rule in Germany.[31,32] The German pre-occupation with tobacco in the 1930s and 1940s has been described before. A lot of efforts were put into anti-tobacco campaigning and into scientific research on tobacco epidemiology. Degeneration and eugenics theory were still quite influential,[33] and it was the time of the Germans to be concerned about a threat to the overall health of the race, and smoking was thought to pose a significant threat.

Only recently have medical researchers and policy makers again pursued the strategy of laying blame at tobacco companies' doorsteps for damaging national health, i.e. the health of people who have not been smokers themselves. As was true with the case against absinthe, the medical and political communities currently are stressing the deleterious effects of smoking on people's health that in fact is brought about by the habits of others [in the case of smoking through environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), in the case of absinthe through heredity]. Research demonstrating the health damaging effect of ETS has been the pillar on which clean indoor air legislation is built.[34]


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