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The Wild, Coke-Fueled Health Claims of Coca-Cola’s Earliest Ad Campaigns

Back in the 1880s, when Coke included roughly one-fifth a line of actual cocaine, its marketing promised a wonder tonic that could cure alcoholism, quickly build muscle and soothe heart trouble

Is there any wonder as to why some early 1880s advertisements for Coca-Cola symbolically suggested that the soft drink’s customers might be riding the white horse?

By now, no one should be surprised that cocaine was once the most prominent active ingredient in Coca-Cola. After all, it’s right there in the name. When the label says “coca” (as in coca leaves) and “cola” (as in kola nuts), it’s literally telling you what substances are supplying the flavorings contained within the cans and bottles that bear the name of the world’s best-selling soft drink.

Obviously, the U.S. government began to heavily crack down on the public sale of cocaine beginning in 1906, but by then, all traces of cocaine had already been eliminated from Coke’s formula and replaced with caffeine three years prior. This fact, however, hasn’t prevented the Coca-Cola Company from maintaining its status as the sole legal U.S. importer of non-narcotic coca leaf extract for commercial use. After all, the formula to Coca-Cola is one of the most well-protected and closely guarded trade secrets in the world, and any idiot knows that you certainly can’t have coca-flavored cola without coca.

But one thing that’s rarely considered is the roughly 17-year period of non-existent regulation exploited by the fledgling version of the Coca-Cola Company for the unbridled promotion of a cocaine-infused product, and the sorts of marketing campaigns that the company’s early advertising minds used to pitch the benefits of cocaine-filled soft drinks to customers anxious to slurp them down.

Again, while the variation of Coca-Cola available in the marketplace closest to the date of cocaine’s elimination from the brand contained comparatively superficial amounts of the white stuff, the earliest iterations of Coke contained roughly nine milligrams of cocaine per glass, which is the equivalent to about one-fifth of a line. These bump-in-a-bottle concoctions were also sold alongside Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, the grown-up, full-figured sibling of Coca-Cola. In preparing this concoction, Coca-Cola formula inventor John Stith Pemberton bottled a beverage that unthinkably (by today’s standards) pre-mixed cocaine and alcohol and sold it to eager consumers.

Like several other early sodas, Coke’s advertising was fraught with grandiose claims of miraculous benefits bestowed upon guzzlers of the bubbly, black liquid — everything from its ability to cure alcoholism to being able to rapidly grow muscle. But knowing what we now know about cocaine, how likely is it that the true Coca-Cola Classic was able to make good on any of these promises? Let’s take a look…

Coca-Cola is a Cure for Dyspepsia

One of the foremost original claims made by the Coca-Cola Company was that its flagship product provided single-dose relief from dyspepsia, or upper abdominal pain caused by eating and drinking. Well, alkaloids contained within the coca leaf are known to have a normalizing effect on bowel function. In this case then, it’s completely reasonable to believe that Coca-Cola was capable of easing problems associated with dyspepsia. Fair is fair.

Fact Check: True

Coca-Cola is a Nourishing Nerve Tonic

Although no longer a set of products that are frequently purchased, nerve tonics were commonly sold in the late 19th century, and were intended to relieve stress and irritability while eliminating restlessness from the body. Studies have demonstrated a link between cocaine use and incidental stress reduction. Then again, those same studies have also identified that people who sniff cocaine only once are likely to become addicted to it, so stress relief is accompanied by dependency, leading to behaviors likely to result in even more stress.

Fact Check: True(ish)

Coca-Cola is a Beneficent Brain Tonic

While brain tonics were conceived to enhance the focus and improve the memories of their users, cocaine is directly associated with both short-term and long-term memory loss. Cocaine may have created delusions of grandeur within its users, along with confidence that their memory wouldn’t fail them, but the reality is, their memories almost certainly did fail them as a direct result of their 19th century Coca-Cola consumption. After all, the long-term effects of cocaine use include restlessness, paranoia and psychosis, not to mention tangible physical brain damage in the form of blood clots and arterial deterioration. In other words, it’s very difficult to argue that cocaine leaves the brain in a better condition than when it first arrived.

Fact Check: False

Coca-Cola is a Pacifying Headache Remedy

Um, cocaine use has been definitively linked with the development and worsening of headaches. The noteworthy element to consider here is that cocaine has also been historically administered during surgeries for its pain-relief properties. It’s therefore reasonable to believe that Coca-Cola may have been imbibed for its headache-relief properties, only to result in even worse headaches for its users within a few hours of its use. If the remedy for the subsequent headache was an even larger dose of Coca-Cola, you can accurately project where this runaway locomotive was inevitably headed.

Fact Check: Possibly true, but might as well be false

Coca-Cola is a Nerve-Deadening Cure for Neuralgia

One of the legitimate medical uses for cocaine has always been its role as a topical pain reliever, and so it would seem to logically follow that the true original Coca-Cola could have been used to remediate neuralgia symptoms, which are typified by pain in the nerve pathway. The thing is, cocaine isn’t widely regarded as a pain reliever when taken orally, or nasally for that matter. It may be that the euphoric high and delusions of grandeur associated with cocaine use are sufficient to override any sensations of pain while the high is being experienced. 

Regardless, once that cocaine wave crests, the withdrawal would certainly result in a renewed focus on the pain that never truly departed, and potentially the emergence of additional chest pain, which is a frequent side effect of cocaine use.

Fact Check: False

Coca-Cola Soothes Heart Trouble

Some of Coca-Cola’s early ads made references to Coke’s ability to correct “heart troubles,” a rather nebulous characterization that could be stretched to describe a truckload of ailments. Even when giving this soft drink the benefit of the doubt, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which drinking a cocaine-laced substance wouldn’t exacerbate any pre-existing heart maladies. To that end, cocaine use has been directly linked to the heightening of blood pressure, the thickening of the heart’s muscle walls and the stiffening of arteries — all of which are causes of heart attacks. It’s a safe bet that whatever Coca-Cola did to people’s hearts during those early years, more harm than good was inflicted upon those early customers.

Fact Check: Patently false

Coca-Cola Rapidly Builds Muscle

Not only does cocaine not help in any way with the building of superficial muscle, but roughly one in four cocaine users develops rhabdomyolysis, which is said to result from vasoconstriction and subsequent ischemia — the narrowing of blood vessels and the inhibiting of blood flow to muscles and other major organs. When rhabdomyolysis occurs, damaged muscle tissues release proteins and electrolytes into the blood. This can further damage the body’s organs, resulting in serious injury and potentially even death. 

And so, not only would Coca-Cola have failed miserably at building any new muscles for its customers, it would have been logical to presume that Coca-Cola’s early edition would contribute directly to muscle breakdown.

Fact Check: Couldn’t be any more false

Coca-Cola Hastily Cures Alcoholism

By what logic could it be said that drinking a cocaine-suffused substance could cure alcoholism? In that era, I’m sure the logic had something to do with temperance, and that providing a cold, sweet, bubbly intoxicant to consumers of alcohol might acceptably replace a fizzy depressant like beer. In the best-case scenario, this might result in the transference of addiction from one substance to another. In reality, cocaine and alcohol mix in the liver to form cocaethylene, which is essentially an even more potent version of cocaine. So anyone who figuratively chased sobriety by literally chasing whiskey with the original Coca-Cola formula may have experienced an even more euphoric high, along with a risk of instant death 18 to 25 times greater than that involved with abusing cocaine alone. 

It’s also worth noting that a Brown University study found that coincidental users of alcohol and cocaine are among the most likely individuals on earth to attempt suicide.

Fact Check: Fraught with falsehood

Coca-Cola is Good for the Kidneys and Liver

It’s impossible to know what the marketers of Coca-Cola were thinking when they publicly postulated that a cocaine-flavored cola beverage could conceivably cleanse the liver and kidneys. The fact of the matter is that chronic cocaine use is known to damage kidneys, even in utero, while it simultaneously causes the liver to become inflamed. Resulting renal failure is a high likelihood, where the liver and kidneys lose their ability to clear toxins from the body, along with the death of muscle fibers through the aforementioned rhabdomyolysis. 

Consequently, any of these conditions may ultimately result in death for the user. The only way you could logically extend this claim into the realm of truthfulness would be to say that Coca-Cola purified your kidneys and liver so thoroughly that it vaporized them.

Fact Check: Utter rubbish

Just a Few More Lines…

Interestingly, printed simultaneously to the absurd claims about the 1880s health benefits of Coca-Cola were a striking number of ads that tell the story of the original formula in brief flashes of out-of-context brilliance that seem to indicate that Coke vendors knew exactly what they were selling. Today, a peddler of illicit drugs might be said to “run cocaine”; meanwhile, shopkeepers of the late 19th century unironically claimed to “run Coca-Cola.” 

After considering everything above, we can unironically state that this is a distinction without a difference. And with such batshit advertising claims making their way into print, it’s almost like the marketing team was on coke or something.