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The Rise and Fall of Cocaine Cola

by Gail Jarvis

The phenomenal Coca-Cola Company has always fascinated me. This hundred-year-old organization has a history of internecine corporate intrigues, shenanigans by its wealthy families and ongoing conflicts with the government. By taking a brief look at its history as well as two of the skirmishes between Coca-Cola and Washington, the first in 1906 and the second in 2000, we can see how our country has changed in the last century.

The story of this multi-national corporation began in the 1880s, when the dispensation of medicine was only loosely monitored. An Atlanta druggist named John Pemberton frequently concocted potions to relieve his customers’ ailments. His inventory included alcohol, opium, morphine, cannabis and two ingredients that were being touted in medical journals at the time: caffeine and cocaine. In 1819, caffeine, a mild stimulant, had been extracted from West African kola beans and scientists’ experiments with coca leaves had, in 1855, isolated the drug cocaine, which became widely used as a local anesthetic.

Eventually, John Pemberton’s various experiments culminated in a liquid tonic consisting of cocaine, caffeine and alcohol. To offset its bitter taste, these ingredients were dissolved in a sugar-flavored caramel colored syrup. Not only did it taste good, it also cured aches and pains, primarily that universal malady, the hangover, or, as the Swedes call it, "The pain in the hair roots." Pemberton’s soda fountain soon became crowded with hangover sufferers demanding the new tonic. As they watched, clutching their temples, the boy behind the counter would add carbonated water to a 7-oz glass partially filled with the new syrup. After gulping down this bubbling elixir, most customers would order a second glass and often a third, and, voila! the "morning after" symptoms were gone.

Word of this magic beverage, that Pemberton’s bookkeeper had named "Coca-Cola", spread rapidly throughout the city of Atlanta. But Pemberton’s health was failing, and he had also become addicted to morphine, so when Asa Candler, owner of an Atlanta drug store chain, offered him $2,300 for the Coca-Cola syrup formula, he accepted. Candler soon created a company to mass-produce the syrup in order to meet the urgent demand of Atlanta pharmacies.

Coca-Cola’s popularity continued to grow and most soda fountains in Atlanta were soon advertising the drink for sale. Also, many new soda fountains opened, so many that a visitor referred to Atlanta as "the city of fountains" with "fountains on almost every street corner and in all major office buildings." Soon Candler was shipping his syrup to other cities and his company would eventually evolve into one of the globe’s most prosperous organizations. Isn’t it interesting that a hangover would be the impetus for one of the world’s largest corporate successes?

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