The Points Interview: Murray Carpenter

51vvjkjjkll-_sx331_bo1204203200_Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Murray Carpenter to our author interview series. His book, Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, was published by Penguin in 2014.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and yet most of us do not think of it as a drug. We simply think of it in terms of the caffeine delivery mechanisms we enjoy—coffee, tea, soda or chocolate. For most people, in moderate doses, caffeine has short-term benefits, making us feel alert, energetic, and happy. It improves athletic performance, and emerging research suggests long-term health benefits, too. But it has very real risks for some people, triggering anxiety, and interrupting sleep. Caffeinated is a wide-angle investigation of caffeine culture in the U.S. I reported the book from research labs, the Green Mountain/Keurig plant in Vermont, coffee farms in Colombia, the world’s largest tea market in Beijing, a cocoa farm in Mexico, and a triathlon in Hawaii.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

In October 1909, federal agents seized a truckload of Coca-Cola syrup as it crossed the border from Georgia to Tennessee. Harvey Wiley, the hard-charging director of the Bureau of Chemistry (predecessor to the FDA), alleged that the beverage was misbranded, containing neither coca nor kola, and that it was adulterated with an addictive substance: caffeine. (At that time, the caffeine was extracted from waste tea leaves by a fledgling St. Louis chemical company called Monsanto.) The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before being settled in 1917 with a consent decree.

The court documents and press coverage provide remarkable details about the Coke of that era. In those days, Coke was typically sold in 8-ounce servings, with 80 milligrams of caffeine—the exact size and caffeine dose of today’s Red Bull. Put another way, Coca-Cola invented the energy drink more than a century ago. The court case led Coke to alter its formula, reducing the caffeine concentration.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The most interesting aspect of the book was investigating the powdered caffeine industry. First, I visited the largest coffee decaffeination plant in the US, in Houston, which produces about a million pounds of powdered caffeine annually. I learned that is a drop in the bucket. The U.S. imports 15 million pounds of caffeine powder annually. That’s enough to fill 300 40-foot shipping containers. (Imagine a freight train two miles long, each car loaded to the brim with psychoactive powder.) Most of that is blended into soft drinks. And it’s powerful stuff—a 12-ounce can of Coke requires just 34 milligrams, about 1/64th of a teaspoon. Ten grams, about a tablespoon, will kill an adult.

Most of the powdered caffeine we import is synthetic—produced in pharmaceutical plants. Like much of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s largely been offshored to lightly regulated factories in China and India. Just three Chinese plants produced nearly half of our total imports in 2011, seven million pounds. I tried to visit plants in China, Germany and India as part of my research. My requests for tours were denied. But I did see the exterior of the world’s largest caffeine factory, in a dingy industrial park in Shijiazhuang, China.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would like to see more caffeine research in three areas. It would be interesting to learn more about how small doses of caffeine—like the 34 milligrams in a can of Coke—influence consumer choices. We still have more to learn about our genetic predispositions to metabolize caffeine differently, despite a lot of terrific research in this area. Finally, we have more to learn about caffeine’s long-term effects on neurological health. Intriguing research suggests that caffeine is associated with cognitive health, but it is challenging to separate the effects of caffeine from the effects of other constituents of coffee, which is still Americans’ primary source of our favorite drug.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

My boring answer is that the narrator should be Sean Pratt, who actually read the audiobook and did a great job!

What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part III: William Rorabaugh

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, “What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. Part III is brought to you by William Rorabaugh, Dio Richardson Professor of History at the University of Washington. Be sure to also check out part II by Isaac Campos

I would like to make four points about alcohol and drug use that historians of both substances need to keep in mind while doing their research.

First, Jack Blocker’s Cycles of Reform is very instructive on the long-term cyclical nature of alcohol consumption in the United States. Heavy use is associated with heavy abuse, and when society becomes alarmed by heavy use, a temperance, prohibition, or other restrictive movement will be precipitated. These movements use different methods, but they do succeed in reducing consumption and harms. As a result, the problem sinks below the radar screen, the public loses interest, and consumption and harms begin to rise again until another cyclical peak and reaction takes place. Alcohol and other substances all take the form of epidemic waves both in the United States and in other cultures. Drug researchers, in particular, can profit from examining the record concerning alcohol, which as a legal, taxed substance for most of American history has better consumption data than is available for most illegal substances.Read More »

Back to the Future: Addiction and the Scientific Method

Editor’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day! Today’s post on a recent joint conference between the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS) and the Society for the Study of Addiction comes courtesy of ADHS president Virginia Berridge.

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Society for the Study of Addiction conference joint with the Alcohol and Drugs History Society York England, November 2016

The Society for the Study of Addiction is one of the oldest international societies in the substance use field. It began as the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety in the 1880s. It publishes the high impact journal Addiction (known to historians under its historic name of the British Journal of Inebriety).
Read More »

The Points Interview: Reid Mitenbuler

9780670016839_custom-f6af410e5df314f2680d56a86ecceeb5e41e0155-s400-c85Editor’s Note: The latest installment in our author interview series features journalist Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire (Viking, 2015).

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

My book uses whiskey as a lens for exploring American history–politics, economics, culture. The product influenced America to a surprising extent. Tax policies surrounding the industry sparked open insurrection (The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794), political corruption (The Whiskey Ring Scandal of Grant’s administration), and economic malfeasance (The Whiskey Trust, otherwise known as “The Octopus,” which copied its charter from Standard Oil). Culturally, the way people drank it (recklessly) helped spur major reform movements–with Prohibition, the template for modern single-issue lobbying was born. With whiskey advertising, you also see how cultural attitudes about race and gender evolved over the years.

But the influence worked both ways. as the nation evolved, from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the production of whiskey itself changed, so I dig into a lot of culinary elements as well, which help modern consumers understand the product.

I build the book around several narratives, and the characters involved are all very colorful. With the Whiskey Rebellion, you have Hamilton vs. Jefferson and a kind of “big vs. small” debate which still surfaces in modern foodie politics. With Prohibition you have a bunch of gangsters. With Repeal, you have a bunch of former gangsters who are now respected businessmen hiring Madison Avenue to clean up their image. It’s the Great American Story.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I really wanted to avoid writing a piece of “foodie lit” that regurgitated the kind of tired themes you might find in a lot of popular food magazines. Of course, I also wanted the book to be fun with broad appeal. I hope that alcohol and drug historians will appreciate my looking at food politics and economics with the kind of nuance those subjects deserve. Whiskey, a product that is both agricultural and industrial, offers a great way to explore those kinds of complicated themes.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

I love the business/marketing stories from my book. When people think about bourbon, the images that come to mind are of log cabins, Appalachia, old men that look like Civil War generals, etc. Those images help sell the product because they’re rooted in nostalgia. They’re like the myths we create about our national identity, drawing on lots of frontier iconography. The real stories, however, are so much more interesting.

For instance I love telling the story of Lewis Rosenstiel, who at one point in the 1950s owned nearly half the whiskey in the U.S. He had gotten his start during the lawless years of Prohibition (with connections to people like Meyer Lansky), then ended up ruling a liquor empire from a floor of the Empire State Building. He was bisexual but kind of owned it, which was controversial for his time, and people whispered about how the blackmail material he held on J. Edgar Hoover was the reason why the FBI didn’t pursue the liquor industry more aggressively. Basically, he was the opposite of what the advertising/marketing would have us believe about this industry. And yet, in his own way he still represented a kind of frontier attitude and dominated the industry. I love that kind of American story.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

More information about how people in the early 1800s started using the term “bourbon” to describe the unique style of whiskey flowing out of the Ohio River Valley. We know some, and there are lots of good theories, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Well, there is an audio version of my book and a gentleman named Brian O’Neill does it. He has exactly the kind of honey-dipped, smoke-cured voice you’d want to hear narrate a book about bourbon.

What Historians Wish People Knew About Drugs, Part II: Isaac Campos

Editor’s Note: At the 2017 American Historical Association in Denver, several historians with relevant research interests participated in a roundtable discussion, What Historians Wish People Knew about Licit and Illicit Drugs.” Keeping with the spirit of the title, Points is delighted to publish some of the panelists’ opening remarks in a temporary new series over the coming weeks. Our second installment is brought to you by Isaac Campos, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati. Also be sure to check out last week’s series premier by Miriam Kingsberg Kadia and part III by William Rorabaugh.

I’d just like to make five quick points with respect to what I wish all people knew about drug history.

First, humans have been taking psychoactive drugs since humans discovered psychoactive drugs. There seems to be a fundamental human attraction to altered states of consciousness if not a fundamental human need for it. This is old news to drug historians, but it is likely a novel idea to the average person. Thus it’s worth mentioning because it means that we are never going to live in a “drug-free world,” so we need to learn to deal intelligently with people take psychoactive drugs.Read More »

Interpreting Donald Trump’s “Oxy Electorate”: On the Interaction of Pain and Politics

On January 20 – inauguration day – the HBO news talk show Real Time with Bill Maher aired its fifteenth season premier. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump was the topic of the hour. After Maher and his panel of pundits concluded their discussion, the host delivered an editorial monologue analyzing Trump’s electoral victory and offered a provocative comparison:

“Here on inauguration day, in the spirit of new beginnings, liberals have to stop calling Trump voters rubes and simpletons and instead reach out and feel their pain, the pain they insist we didn’t see. And there is ample evidence for that pain. Did you know that of the fourteen states with the highest painkiller prescriptions per person, they all went for Trump? Trump won eighty percent of the states that have the biggest heroin problem… So let’s stop calling Trump voters idiots and fools and call them what they are: fucking drug addicts!”Read More »