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Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

According to legend, it was quite literally the stuff dreams were made of--a magical, emerald-hued elixir containing equal parts fantasy and madness. It went by various names: Green Goddess, Green Muse, Green Devil and most commonly, La Fee Verte, the Green Fairy.

Until last year, absinthe had been banned in the United States and most of Europe for almost 100 years. The story of the controversial drink's birth, demise and eventual resurrection can actually be considered a tale about risk--both real and perceived--and how a confluence of events and misinformation can change the fortunes of an entire industry.

Created by a French doctor living in Switzerland in the late 1700s, absinthe became a wildly popular drink, particularly in France in the 1840s after soldiers were prescribed it as a treatment for malaria on the front lines in North Africa. They returned home with their newfound potion and by the 1860s, 5 p.m. was "the Green Hour" in French cafes and bistros. In 1874, the French drank 300,000 liters of absinthe. By 1910, they were consuming 36 million liters annually.

Absinthe was particularly popular among artists and writers living in Europe around the turn of the century. Poet Oscar Wilde asked, "What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?" while Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks." Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet and Picasso all painted absinthe-inspired works and it is rumored that Van Gogh cut off his ear during an absinthe binge. And, therein was the problem. As the drink gained in popularity, Valentin Magnan, a French physician, wrote about the dangers of "absinthism," an absinthe-induced disorder characterized by violent behavior, hallucinations and seizures. The supposed culprit was a neurotoxin called thujone found in absinthe's integral ingredient, wormwood. Reports of violent absinthe drinkers provided fuel for a growing temperance movement. When a Swiss laborer named Jean Lanfray murdered his pregnant wife and two children after drinking absinthe in 1905, authorities reached their breaking point. The tragedy put a face on the prohibition argument and, along with pressure from powerful winemakets tired of losing market share to the verdant upstart, made a ban inevitable. By 1915, absinthe was banned in most European nations and the United States.

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On the surface, absinthe's ban seemed well-justified. Upon further inspection, however, this might not have been the case. Absinthe prohibition was actually based on bad science. Magnan's absinthism experiments were conducted on guinea pigs that were given concentrated wormwood in sealed glass jars, making the results virtually inapplicable to human drinkers. While thujone is indeed dangerous at high concentrations, absinthe contains such small quantities that a person would die from alcohol poisoning long before suffering from the chemical's harmful effects. It is much more likely that absinthe's reported drug-like effects can be attributed to the high concentration of alcohol (55%-72%) and the unique combination of herbs that make up the drink.

Even sensational reports of absinthe-fueled violence should be reconsidered. Van Goth's self-mutilation likely stemmed more from his well-documented psychological problems than his beverage choice. Anti-absinthe advocates seized on the two absinthe drinks Lanfray consumed before killing his family but downplayed the fact that he was an alcoholic who, on the day he killed his family, reportedly also drank seven glasses of wine, six glasses of cognac, two creme de menthes and a coffee with brandy.

The unfortunate reality is that a multi-million dollar industry ground to a halt due to unfounded fears and snowballing speculation. Absinthe was essentially a casualty of poor reputation management on a worldwide scale--an error that has taken almost a century to correct. But now absinthe is legal again and ironically one of its selling points is its perceived risk. Like any good legend, the Green Fairy seems to be eternal.

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Title Annotation:Details: From the Pulpit
Author:O'Rourke, Morgan
Publication:Risk Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:638
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