Coca-Cola was launched in 1885 by John S. Pemberton, in Atlanta, Georgia. At first, it came as an alcoholic beverage, called French Wine Cola, inspired by Vin Mariani, the creation of French chemist Angelo Mariani. Vin Mariani was marketed in Europe since 1863 and contained cocaine (some 6 mg per ounce), with the purpose of enhancing its tonic properties. Vin Mariani was most successful in those years and highly appreciated by such celebrities as Jules Verne, Auguste Rodin, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Edison, and H. G. Wells. Pope Leo XIII himself awarded Mariani the Gold Medal of the Vatican. However, the French Wine Cola hardly enjoyed any commercial success in the US. When Atlanta banned alcoholic beverages in 1886, Pemberton decided to give up the alcohol in the formula, and maintain the basic elements, extracted from the coca leaves and the kola nut, together with some caffeine, for a carbonated soft drink, who took the name of Coca-Cola.
The use of cocaine in those days was very popular, highly advocated by physicians and pharmacists as a remedy for many conditions. Cultivated for centuries in South America by locals who used to chew its leaves for their refreshing effect, coca was brought to Europe in the 16th century. Isolated and identified by the german chemist Koller in the 1850s, the main alkaloid of coca was called cocaine. Its virtues were recognized by psychiatrists, like Siegmund Freud, who endorsed it as a treatment for morphine addiction. Cocaine also proved to have anaesthetic properties, and it was introduced in the practice of eye surgery. It was also considered very effective against asthma, hay fever, sinusitis, toothaches, indigestion, fatigue, and impotence. William A. Hammond, a former Surgeon General of the United States, suggested it as a cure for stomach irritability, excessive mental exertion, hysteria, and masturbation. Manufactured in various forms, from powder to solutions, and from cigarettes to intravenous injections, cocaine was advertised with slogans like “a brain tonic for exhaustion”, ” a cure for all nervous affections”, “a tonic for elderly people who are easily tired”, and “it supplies the place of food, makes the coward brave, and the silent eloquent.”
By the end of the 19th century, many American soft drinks contained cocaine (one of them was plainly called “Dope”), and they were served mainly from soda fountains. Coca-Cola only had some 0.75 mg per ounce, but this was still enough to induce obvious euphoric and tonic effects. In 1887, the pharmacist and businessman Asa G. Candler (later to become the mayor of Atlanta) bought the trademark of Coca Cola from John Pemberton for $2,300.
Overlooked for a few decades, the addictive capacity of cocaine became recognized however in the 1880s. Newspaper reports, the description of a “cocainist” delirium case by dr. Freud, and the book of Annie Meyer, “Eight Years in Cocaine Hell” contributed to public acknowledgement of cocaine’s harmful effects. As early as 1887, US states begun enacting laws against cocaine abuse. By 1890, the Medical Record reported some 400 cases of addiction to the drug. An investigation by a committee of the Connecticut State Medical Society in 1896 concluded that cocaine was a major cause of drug dependency, and “the danger of addiction outweighs the little efficacy attributed to the remedy.” In 1901, a Mississippi law prohibited the sale of cocaine without a prescription. The 1903 “Report of Committee on the Acquirement of Drug Habits” from the American Pharmaceutical Association stated that ninety percent of cocaine addicts “have fallen victim to its influence through use of prescriptions or patent medicines containing the drug”, and declared that most users were “bohemians, gamblers, high- and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps, and casual laborers”. President William Taft proclaimed cocaine as Public Enemy No. 1, and in 1914 the Congress passed the Harrison act, which tightly regulated the distribution and sale of cocaine.
It was in 1903 that Asa Candler decided to remove cocaine from Coca Cola. However, at that time Candler only owned the name of “Coca-Cola”, but he had no patent on the syrup itself. Therefore, he believed that his product’s name had to be descriptive, and that he must have had at least some by-product of the coca leaf in the syrup to protect his right to the name Coca-Cola; the name was the thing of real value, and the registered trademark was its only safeguard. So, the chemists of the Coca-Cola company did their best (with the available technology) to extract cocaine from the coca leaves. After 1904, the beverage only contained molecular traces of cocaine, until complete removal was achieved in 1929. Presently, Coca Cola uses a cocaine-free coca leaf extract prepared at a Stepan Company plant in Maywood, New Jersey.
So, for those who are still fearful of addiction, let them be reassured: there is absolutely no trace of cocaine in our cokes today!