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 Today

Silence has surrounded absinthe for almost a century, after it was banned. Nowadays it seems to be coming back in style, while most countries in the EU have lifted the ban on absinthe again. Absinthe figured in a number of recent popular Hollywood movies; for instance 'From Hell' (2001), starring Johnny Depp as the opium-laudanum-absinthe-addicted detective who is investigating the Jack the Ripper murders in London; 'Moulin Rouge' (2001) a movie celebrating the bohemian culture of 19th century France, when absinthe (and the Moulin) had its heyday; and 'Murder by numbers' (2002), in which two brilliant but bored high school students try to commit the perfect murder. One of the students is seen reading Rimbaud's poem 'The Drunken Boat' (In the poem, the drunken boat stands for the drunken body (or mind), which travels on various imaginary fluids. The states of intoxication of the narrator change as the fluids change. The intoxication that is associated with the 'green water' is deeper than that due to the wine.[41]) and drinking absinthe.

With the return of absinthe, worries have been expressed about its resurgence as a popular drug through opportunities of purchasing it through the Internet.[42] Some have argued to put absinthe under public health hazard on account of the active ingredients in it, and of its high grade of alcohol.[43] However, such reactions to a recurring use of absinthe from the scientific community have been few. Yet it is now again fairly easy to obtain a bottle in most countries, either through the Internet, or in bars and liquor stores. What then is the difference between now and then?

The absinthe that is currently sold is not the same as the absinthe that people drank before it was banned, because of current restrictions in the amount of thujone (no more than 35 mg/kg) that beverages can contain according to EU laws.[44] Thujone is a neurotoxin and an active ingredient in wormwood oil,[45] which is used in the manufacturing process of absinthe. Thujone has a blocking effect on GABAA neurotransmitter receptors in the central nervous system, which are involved in decreasing anxiety (in contrast to thujone, ethanol/alcohol and benzodiazepines facilitate binding to these receptors, leading to decreased levels of anxiety). Therefore, the present-day absinthe is arguably a more innocent substance than the absinthe of old (although a concentration of about 70% of alcohol is staggering!), which had much higher concentrations of thujone (sometimes about 25 times as much[45]), and consequently served as a stimulant (because of the thujone) and a relaxant (because of the alcohol) at the same time. However, the negative effect of absinthe use as it was perceived by French society by the time it was banned was primarily determined by its social distribution and by its relation with poverty. Besides, the negative image of absinthe as a cause of grave mental illness and suicide may have been based more on the polemic of doctors, writers and politicians, than on sound empirical research.[46]

It seems that the worries with regard to absinthe that have been uttered at present are dwarfed by the worries that it elicited in the late-19th and early-20th century in France (Interested readers are referred to the following books: 'Absinthe; history in a bottle', by Barnaby Conrad, and 'The book of absinthe; a cultural history' by Phil Baker, or to www.oxygenee.com for more elaborate descriptions of the history of absinthe.). Maybe, our minds are just more occupied by present-day public health problems, such as those surrounding tobacco.

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