Will the quinine in tonic water prevent malaria?

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Dear Cecil: Tonic water contains quinine, because (I gather) quinine was the “tonic” against malaria in Britain’s colony days. So is the dose in tonic water today the same as it was when it was being used medicinally? If so, does drinking tonic water today actually affect my chances of getting malaria? If not, why do soft drink companies keep putting it in? Toph, via the Internet


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I can see where you’re going with this. You’re tossing back that fourth gin and tonic and thinking, Man, I’m really marinating the old hypothalamus here. But at least I won’t get malaria.

Nice try, sport, but no dice. Tonic water contains less than 20 milligrams of quinine per six fluid ounces. The recommended quinine dosage for treatment of malaria is two or three 200-350 milligram tablets three times a day. If you drink the equivalent of that in gin and tonics, malaria will be the least of your problems.

Tonic water was never intended as a cure or preventive for malaria, but malaria is the reason the quinine is in there. Quinine has a bitter taste. To make the stuff palatable when used as an antidote for fevers, legend has it, British colonials in India mixed quinine with gin and lemon or lime. Over time they learned to love the godawful stuff. (You can see this principle at work in a lot of British cuisine.) Tonic water was granted an English patent in 1858, Schweppes brought it to the United States in 1953, and to this day it remains an essential component of Anglo-American mixology. Quinine is also used, along with other herbs, to flavor vermouth.

It’s only fitting that we toast quinine (well, toast with quinine). Few drugs have been such a boon to humanity. Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, which grows in the rain forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes. (One begins to comprehend the importance of preserving rain forests.) The Spanish first heard about the medicinal properties of the bark of the “fever tree” from the natives in the early 17th century. According to tradition, the stuff was used in 1638 to cure Countess Anna del Chinchon, wife of the viceroy of Peru, an event commemorated a century later when botanists named the plant. The viceroy shipped a boatload of it to Europe in 1640, and the Jesuits began using it in their missionary work, whence it acquired the nickname “Jesuit’s powder.” For a time religious and national rivalries kept quinine from being universally adopted, but eventually everybody began using it, and many historians today say it permitted the European conquest of the tropics.

Quinine was the only effective treatment for malaria for 300 years. After World War II, however, it was largely supplanted by synthetic drugs such as chloroquine that were safer, more effective, and easier to make. (Though quinine kills malarial parasites in red blood cells and alleviates fever, it doesn’t completely destroy malaria in the body, allowing relapses to occur if quinine therapy is halted.) But some strains of the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum became resistant to the synthetic drugs — one reason the global malaria eradication program launched by the World Health Organization in 1955 was declared a failure in 1976 — and in some parts of the world quinine has again become the antimalarial drug of choice.

One last thing. (I know we’re getting off the track of tonic water, but when else am I going to get a chance to use this stuff?) Schweppes claims to have invented the soft-drink business by patenting a process for carbonating water in 1783. The hard part was keeping the carbonation from seeping out of the bottle when the cork dried out. Schweppes’s solution was classic: to ensure that the corks stayed damp, the company used bottles with rounded ends so they couldn’t stand upright. Drink enough gin and tonics, and neither will you.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.