Roundtable

Good ’Til the Last Drop?

Coca-Cola goes on trial.

By Sarah Laskow

Monday, February 11, 2013

Drink Coca-Cola 5¢, an advertising poster, c. 1890.

 Drink Coca-Cola 5¢, an advertising poster, c. 1890. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

In October of 1909, the Coca-Cola Company transported forty barrels and twenty kegs of its signature syrup across state lines, from its hometown of Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee. “Delicious and Refreshing Coca-Cola” was still a novelty, spreading from Georgia to soda fountains across the South as stimulant and hangover cure—a tonic that could take on any number of ailments. Chief Chemist for the U.S. Government, Harvey Washington Wiley, did not buy that spin, and as soon as the sweet stuff crossed state lines into federal jurisdiction, his agents seized the forty barrels and twenty kegs of Coke. Two years later, the United States brought suit against the company, putting put Coca-Cola on trial as adulterated, deleterious, and injurious to health. It was the second case the government had pursued under the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act (the country’s first food and drug law), and the first time Coca-Cola had faced federal or state prosecution. Wiley had pushed for the seizure in order to put Coca-Cola on trial as adulterated, deleterious, and injurious to health, but the ingredient he most worried about was not the cocaine from which the soda had taken its name. Wiley was on a crusade against caffeine.

In 1909, teetotalers and progressive reformers were in ascendance, and Wiley had climbed the ladder as defender of consumer rights—the “watchdog of the kitchen.” In 1902, he recruited a group of volunteers to eat controlled amounts of borax, formaldehyde, and benzoates—potentially harmful chemicals being used as food preservatives. People called the group the“Poison Squad,” and, gathering power from the publicity, Wiley started pushing hard for Congress to pass a bill that would require manufacturers to start paying more attention to what went into their food. The Pure Food and Drugs Act gave Wiley’s Bureau of Chemistry the power to fine manufacturers if their products were contaminated with “filthy, decomposed, or putrid animal or vegetable substance” or if they did not disclose the use of certain dangerous ingredients, the list of which began with morphine, opium and cocaine.

Once upon a time, Coca-Cola did have cocaine in it—extracts from coca leaves and kola nuts accounted for possibly less than 1/400 of a grain per ounce. (A non-narcotic form of the extract is still used today.) But the company voluntarily started removing it in an earlier concession to teetotalers and, when the Pure Food and Drugs Act came along, that bit of brown-nosing put the company in an ideal market position. Competitors may have needed cocaine to amp up their product; Coca-Cola had its name to stand on. It was positioned as an attractive, but manageable indulgence—one 1906 advertising campaign touted it as “The great national temperance beverage.” Not a hard drink like liquor, but a soft drink, relatively harmless, and even more so with the cocaine flushed out.

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In the early twentieth century, soft drinks were not the liquid candy we’re all too familiar with today, drawing the ire of activists and politicians as the root of child obesity. As an alternative to hard liquor, pharmacists would pack together a mess of stimulants with sweeteners and citrus flavors, marketing the result as a tonic with vaguely defined medicinal properties. These drinks were enticing, dangerous, and addicting.

Turn of the century soft-drinks were the Progressive Era equivalent of Sparks or Four Loko—mildly alcoholic beverages with a stimulating dose of caffeine that tsk-tsk-tskers worried were keeping the kids up all night long, encouraging all manner of shenanigans. And, like Four Loko, soft drinks were chased off the shelves. As Mark Pendergrast documented in For God, Country and Coca-Cola, early twentieth century reformers went a little crazy over the drink’s potential effects. The Georgian, a crusading newspaper whose editor became a Wiley ally, reported that “eight Coca-Colas contain enough caffeine to kill.” An anti-soda evangelical warned that Coca-Cola could drive young women to “inappropriate behavior” and young men to masturbation. Earlier in the century, Virginia had tried to ban Coca-Cola altogether, and for a few months in 1907, after Wiley dug up testimony from a 1901 mistrial putting Coca-Cola’s alcohol content at two percent, the Army forbade soldiers from indulging.

Wiley didn’t approve of cocaine or opium any more than he did caffeine, but in his view, those type of stimulants could be easily controlled, especially since they were grown outside the United States. Caffein—he spelled it without the “e”—was everywhere, in beverages “universally employed, almost in every family.” It was difficult to argue against coffee or tea, ubiquitous as they were, and natural, as well. But Coca-Cola was marketed to children, and soft drinks, unlike in coffee or tea, had caffeine that was unnecessary. It was an additive, Wiley though, much like artificial sweeteners or bleach in flour—two other products that were, in his opinion, unacceptable.

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By the time Coca-Cola went on trial in 1911, there was no exact measure of the harm caffeine could do to the human body. It was clear that caffeine was added into the drink during manufacture, the Supreme Court later wrote: “It appears that in the manufacturing process water and sugar are boiled to make a syrup; there are four meltings; in the second or third the caffeine is put in.” But the tests of caffeine’s effects had been had only been measured on lab animals—as one researcher testified at the trial, it did kill the frogs. Coca-Cola had managed to hire a recent Columbia Ph.D. graduate, Harry Hollingworth, from to test caffeine out on human subjects; anxious to keep his professional reputation intact, he conducted a double-blind study so well-designed it would be used as a model for future research in psychopharmocology studies. He tested the subjects for coordination, steadiness, the speed, accuracy in typewriting, and the ability to name colors and opposites. In the “cancellation test,” participants received a sheet covered in rows of randomly ordered numbers, 0 through 9, each of which appeared exactly the same number of times. Participants had to cross out all of the 7s.

Hollingworth found the caffeine to be a mild stimulant that harmed neither the motor nor mental aptitude of his subjects. But it’s not clear that evidence made much of a difference in the trial; there were plenty of doctors willing to testify about the drink’s dangers:

I have seen people who got into the habit of using it. I remember one physician who was in the habit of using it and he would go every chance he got around the corner to the pharmacy and get a glass of Coca-Cola…I saw that this man was very much like a man who was addicted to the use of alcohol and who has to [go] and get alcohol...I noticed something wrong with the man, that he was nervous and morose, had lost his [medical] practice…and after this I found out what caused it.

The Coca-Cola Company did win its 1911 lawsuit, but eventually the Supreme Court reversed the decision and sent the case back to a lower court. Coca-Cola agreed to reduce the amount of caffeine it put into soda, and both sides considered the problem settled. The government never legally named the danger of caffeine, or Coca-Cola’s intoxicating effect, leaving the answer as ambiguous as the addiction itself. “What is meant by habit forming?” wrote a lawyer for Coca-Cola to Congress. “We are all a bundle of habits, almost everything we do is the result of habit, everything in one sense a habit.”