Intended for healthcare professionals


Absinthe: what's your poison?

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 18 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1590

Though absinthe is intriguing, it is alcohol in general we should worry about

  1. John Strang, professor of the addictions,
  2. Wilfred N Arnold, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology,
  3. Timothy Peters, professor of clinical biochemistry
  1. National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London SE5 8AF
  2. University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS66160-7421, USA
  3. King's College Hospital, London SE5 9PJ

    Absinthe, the emerald green liqueur associated with excess, is back in business. Having been banned in many countries in the early 20th century, its newly fashionable image, combined with global purchasing opportunities through the internet, has brought its revival. Since 1998 several varieties of absinthe have again been available in Britain—from bars, stores, and mail order. But is absinthe a special problem or simply part of a general concern about excessive alcohol consumption?

    Originally formulated in Switzerland, absinthe became most popular in 19th century France. Between 1875 and 1913 French consumption of the liquor increased 15-fold.1 It became an icon of “la vie de bohème,” and in fin-de-siècle Paris l'heure verte (the green [cocktail] hour) was a daily event. Although never as popular in Britain, the fashion of mixed drinks with a “spot” or “kick” of absinthe was reported in London as late as 1930.2

    Many creative artists had their lives touched by absinthe (Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Picasso).3 The illness of Vincent van Gogh was certainly exacerbated by excessive drinking of absinthe,4 and one of his six major crises was precipitated by drinking.3 Van Gogh probably had acute intermittent porphyria—a working hypothesis5 compatible with the documented porphyrogenicity of the terpenoids in absinthe as well …

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