Rebuttal to “QUEER ADVERTISING” by John Lauritsen

Rebuttal to “QUEER ADVERTISING” by John Lauritsen

Over six years ago, at the 2000 Queer Studies Symposium at McMaster University in Canada, anti-poppers and anti-AZT activist John Lauritsen gave a speech entitled “Queer Advertising.” The title was surprisingly misleading for a speech more concerned with his allegations of alleged dangers of inhaling alkyl nitrites and their advertisement in the gay press, than any other aspect of queer advertising. Today, nearly seven years later, one wonders if Lauritsen’s arguments are still timely, or if they were ever an honest representation the facts? Over the next pages, this article explores questions concerning the accuracy of Lauritsen’s claims. Lauritsen’s speech tends to jump from topic to topic in a somewhat haphazard fashion; but for ease of clarification, this article has been organized by subject, rather than by how topics were presented in the original speech.

Poppers: Safety and Chemistry

Lauritsen makes it clear from the first paragraph on that he believes poppers are harmful, if not outright dangerous. According to Lauritsen, “they have been and continue to be the cause of suffering and death for tens or hundreds of thousands of gay men.” However, it’s important to note that, contrary to Lauritsen’s claim, the safety of alkyl nitrites or “poppers” as they are commonly called, was no longer being questioned at the time of his speech. Nitrite inhalants have been subjected to numerous scientific studies regarding their possible toxic effects over the past decades. The largest and most definitive of these studies was published in 1979 by a group of respected scientists and doctors, including Dr. John Parker from Queen's University, a specialist in nitrite vasodilators, including alkyl nitrites. Dr. Parker had been the chairman of the Division of Cardiology at Queen's for almost a decade. Also prominent in this study was Mark Nickerson, PhD, MD, professor and past chairman of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill University in Montreal, who had been the author of the nitrite vasodilator chapter of Goodman & Gillman’s standard textbook of pharmacology for nearly forty years. Their findings were definitive: “No important acute or chronic toxic effects have been demonstrated with the volatile nitrites, and their use in an uncontrolled and unregulated fashion has proven to be safe." Later, the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) confirmed these findings. Add to this the fact that alkyl nitrites have been used to treat angina for over 150 years with no safety concerns whatsoever, and Lauritsen’s claim appears oddly alarmist, with no basis in fact.

Lauritsen goes on to argue that poppers use is unique to the homosexual male population. This is actually quite far from the truth. Alkyl nitrites act in the body by relaxing smooth muscle. Because all the sphincters in the body are comprised of smooth muscle, including the anal sphincter, homosexual males often use poppers to facilitate anal intercourse. However, the vagina sphincter is smooth muscle as well, and many women, straight and lesbian, also find poppers help facilitate intercourse. Nitrites do not act on the pain receptors of the body whatsoever, as Lauritsen claims. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that they do act on pleasure receptors, producing a powerful sense of enhanced orgasm, and lengthened duration of orgasm. As a result, many heterosexual men and women find inhalation of poppers enhances sex. Media reports over past few decades, along with anecdotal evidence, confirms that both homosexual and heterosexual individuals use alkyl nitrites to enhance sexual experience.

Also discussed in Lauritsen’s speech are the biochemical properties of alkyl nitrites. It soon becomes clear from his comments, however, that he lacks a clear understanding of the chemistry behind these compounds. For instance, the activist claims that poppers cause severe burns when spilled on the skin. Chemically speaking, the volatile nature of these compounds makes such burns nearly physically impossible. Alkyl nitrites evaporate so quickly that there simply isn’t time for the compounds to cause a burn before they evaporate into the atmosphere. It’s likely that an individual spilling nitrites on his or her skin wouldn’t even be aware of it, other than for a slight feeling of cold. Of course, poppers might cause a skin burn if they were contaminated with a residual acid, but such an occurrence is extremely unlikely in the higher quality consumer brands of nitrite room odorants.

Lauritsen’s comment linking the flammability of poppers to the “explosion” of the RUSH® factory in San Francisco also warrants clarification. While it’s true that alkyl nitrites are highly flammable, this simply means that you shouldn’t hold a lit match to an open bottle. The fire at the RUSH® factory in San Francisco in 1981 (there was no explosion, as nitrites are flammable, but not explosive), was caused, according to then-San Francisco Fire Chief Andrew Casper, as the result of an employee using an electric space heater next to some piping, which had sprung a leak during a production run.

What about Lauritsen’s comment that “at gay discotheques [in the 1970s] men could be seen shuffling around in a daze, holding little bottles under the nose?” This is an unfortunate case of ‘guilt by association’, in which the activist establishes an unwarranted connection in his audience’s mind. While his comments leave one with the impression that men at discos shuffle about in a daze as a result of inhaling poppers, this is scientifically impossible. Alkyl nitrites relax smooth muscle in the body and that’s all they do. They are 100% chemically incapable of creating a “daze” in anyone. Quite possibly, the miasma of other drugs used at the disco created this daze. This was, after all, the 70s, and the drug culture was a well-established way of life. Lauritsen uses this ‘guilt by association’ technique again when he associates poppers with heroin, cocaine, and whisky. The latter three are mind-altering drugs; alkyl nitrites are not. Yet simply by linking poppers to these drugs, a connection between them is falsely established in the audience’s mind. On a curious note, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol have all been proven to be serious health hazards, while poppers have been proven to be essentially safe through the scientific investigations mentioned earlier.

While we’re discussing vices, exaggeration is another one we can easily add to Lauritsen’s portfolio. What else could a comment such as “some gay men became so addicted to poppers that they snorted nitrite fumes around the clock” be labeled as?

As for his claim that “for some, poppers became a sexual crutch, without which they were incapable of having sex, even solitary masturbation”, if published data exists that supports to such a claim, I’d certainly like to see it. Such unsubstantiated statements seem to be the rule rather than the exception in Lauritsen’s speech. Consider the list of unsubstantiated claims the activist provides in an attempt to depict poppers as dangerous. Why does Lauritsen argue that alkyl nitrites are harmful when he should know there is no scientific basis to his arguments? It’s a difficult question to answer, but let’s look at each of his claims more closely.

Lauritsen claims that alkyl nitrites harm the immune system. Is there any scientific basis to this claim? In fact, there is, but it is an extremely shaky basis built on a framework of faulty research methods. For instance, some studies did conclude that alkyl nitrites could damage the immune system of mice; however, it was later confirmed that the doses were not adjusted for body size. In other words, the mice were given doses that far exceeded the doses and exposure duration of humans inhaling poppers. Thus, mice were exposed to toxic and near toxic levels of the compound. The same argument stands for the lung damage Lauritsen claims poppers cause. In the amount inhaled by humans, there is no risk of such damage. As for the claim that poppers can cause severe anemia, this is possible only if poppers are injected into the blood stream or swallowed, known toxic modes of delivery.

What about the activist’s claim that poppers are mutagenic (cancer causing)? This is based on early speculation that alkyl nitrites had the capacity to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds (such as those found in smoked meat), a hypothesis later disproved in scientific studies.

Lauritsen’s further claim that inhalation of poppers can result in death or brain damage due to a heart attack or stroke is similarly unfounded. There has never been a documented case of this happening. Curiously, people are much more likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack when watching a scary movie – a fact that is well documented.

Lauritsen’s argument that poppers have been used successfully to commit suicide is similarly unsupported by documentation. There has never been a case of such a tragedy ever having occurred. However, it is well known that suicide by ingestion of non-prescription drugs, such as aspirin, is quite common. There are numerous ways by which an individual can commit suicide if he has set his mind on it; the availability or non-availability of alkyl nitrites has absolutely no impact on this unfortunate reality.

Along similar lines, Lauritsen tries to link poppers to a bizarre Wisconsin murder case in the 1980s where the victim died as a result of suffocation. The medical examiner and coroner’s report was very clear about the cause of death. According to court transcripts made during the trial, the victim insisted on having a poppers-soaked sock stuffed into his mouth to enhance orgasm while tied up with a rope as part of a sexual fetish. As tragic as this case is, the connection that Lauritsen implies between alkyl nitrites and the man’s death simply does not exist. Death was due to suffocation, nothing more.

Later in his speech, Lauritsen also attempts to link alkyl nitrites to AIDS, and more specifically, to Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). Yet, as scientific research has progressed over the past decade, these claims have been proven unfounded. Lauritsen is correct in his statement that “for at least five years the top AIDS experts, including Robert Gallo, have known that HIV is not the cause of KS.” We know today that HIV plays a role in development of the disease, but isn’t the causal factor. While a Kaposi’s sarcoma-poppers link was studied early in the AIDS crisis, the evidence supporting this connection was later dismissed as merely correlational. Scientists now know that poppers play no role in the development of Kaposi’s sarcoma. This was verified in the late 1990s when a herpes virus, HHV-8, was isolated as the cause of both AIDS-related and non-AIDS related KS. Coincidently, this data was available before Lauritsen gave his speech in 2000.

Similarly, there is no “disinformation’ coming from government agencies and AIDS organizations. On the contrary, these organizations have contributed tirelessly in the battle against AIDS, and Lauritsen’s comments are a disservice to the dedicated employees and volunteers involved with these groups.

Lauritsen shifts to a new adversary in his war against “toxic” compounds, when anti-AIDS drugs such as AZT and protease inhibitors suddenly join poppers and become his targets as well. AZT and protease inhibitors are not without their side effects, although the side effects of the latter are certainly significantly less, as they reflect recent advances in anti-retroviral therapy. Unfortunately side effects are a reality when it comes to almost all prescription and non-prescription drugs, including ones as seemingly benign as aspirin. AZT and protease inhibitors are not free from risk, yet this risk must always be weighed against the benefits provided by the medication. Since the introduction of protease inhibitors, the number of people who have become ill from AIDS-related opportunistic infections or have died from the disease has decreased by 70%. Lauritsen’s further comments that “there is no basis in reality for the claim that protease inhibitors have reduced AIDS deaths” and that the “sharp drop in new AIDS diagnoses and in AIDS deaths began several years before the protease inhibitors were put on the market” simply do not ring true, as a little research into the subject will quickly reveal. Limits on time restrict a fuller coverage of Lauritsen’s anti-AIDS drug comments in this article, but I urge you take the time to research this topic yourself to determine if Lauritsen’s comments sink or swim. You probably won’t be surprised to find they need a very large life preserver.

Poppers and Politics

Leaving the biochemical laboratory for the political stage, let’s take look at Lauritsen’s comments about government legislation concerning poppers. According to Lauritsen, poppers have been a "banned hazardous product" in the United States since February 15, 1989. This statement, however, is incorrect. Poppers were indeed banned in the United States, but in 1991, not 1989. Curiously, Lauritsen gets it wrong even when he doesn’t have to change the facts to support his argument. This unfortunate disregard for accurate fact-finding seems to pursue Lauritsen throughout his speech. For instance, he goes on to claim the “initiative for regulating poppers came from the gay community itself.” This is yet another misrepresentation of the facts. The initiative for regulating poppers was based on a relentless campaign by Hank Wilson and John Lauritsen himself, two men who are hardly a representation of the gay community. Similarly, his statement that “West Hollywood, the gayest city in the world, took the lead in banning poppers” is incorrect. West Hollywood actually regulated poppers years after other jurisdictions had already done so. Houston, Texas, for instance, had already banned their sale to minors. As such, being a ‘gay city’ is irrelevant to the issue at hand. A more likely reason for singling out West Hollywood is an attempt by Lauritsen to establish poppers use as a solely gay phenomenon, which it clearly isn’t. As for Lauritsen’s reference to “the Committee to Monitor Poppers, founded in 1981 by gay activist Hank Wilson” as the lobbying group responsible for the regulation against poppers, the organization did indeed play a role. However, contrary to being a group, the organization always has been and remains to this day a one-man ‘committee’ headed by Wilson.

Lauritsen shows further bias when he correctly states that the prescription requirement for poppers was eliminated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after 1960, but fails to comment on why the prescription ban was lifted in the first place. It would naturally be rather damaging to his argument to admit that the FDA eliminated the prescription requirement for alkyl nitrites because the compound was found to be perfectly safe for non-prescription use. Lauristen’s anti-poppers bias reveals itself again and again throughout his speech. For instance, the prescription requirement for alkyl nitrites was indeed reinstated by the FDA in 1969; however, this was entirely in response to a conservative push to do so once it became clear that people were using them to enhance sexual pleasure. It was not, as the activist claims, because the compound was dangerous. In fact years later, the FDA definitively stated that there was no more risk in inhaling poppers than there was in using other non-prescription drugs products.

Lauritsen goes on to illustrate “a number of factors [that] help explain why poppers became a mass phenomenon among gay men.” His first point is that poppers were a legal substance, and as such the “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked the other way.” This is a curious claim, considering that the FDA had no jurisdiction over poppers whatsoever when they were sold as ‘room odorants’. The FDA is, after all, the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, jurisdiction over nitrite room odorants fell under the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an agency that undertook a yearlong investigation of the poppers industry in 1980, which included an exhaustive review of national data concerned with the use of room odorants as inhalants and the potential dangers of such use. The final outcome: use of nitrite-based room odorants both per label instructions, and even when used as inhalants, was safe. As stated above, the FDA also reported (when poppers fell under their jurisdiction) that poppers use posed little potential health hazard.

Poppers and the Press

What about Lauritsen’s claims regarding the role the gay press played in what he refers to as “one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns of all time?” According to Lauritsen, “within only a few years, hundreds of thousands of men were persuaded that poppers were an integral part of their gay identity.” Let’s look a bit more closely at this claim.

It’s true that new brands of poppers were advertised in the gay press, but no ad campaign in the world, no matter how persuasive or well financed, is able to convince a group of people that a product is part of their identity if it doesn’t deliver what it promises. As such, it was the pleasurable sensations people experienced from inhaling poppers that drove the market, nothing else. Lauritsen misleads his audience by claiming that the gay press was both “odd and deplorable” for the role they played in advertising these compounds to the homosexual population. According to Lauritsen, the “so called gay publications were delighted with the revenues they received from running full-page, four-color ads for the various brands of poppers.’ Well, why wouldn’t they be pleased to gain major advertising revenue? I’ve never heard of a publication that was unhappy when a company purchased advertising space, no matter whether that company sold poppers or popcorn. True to form, Lauritsen fails to mention that Playgirl, Penthouse, Hustler, and many other straight publications were also very pleased to earn revenue when they ran the very same popper ads in their magazines. Poppers were a legal product at the time and contrary to Lauritsen’s innuendo, no conspiracy theory was at work here, only the laissez faire reality of the American free market.

Lauritsen is incorrect again when he claims “there had been no word in the gay press that poppers were harmful.” In fact, the gay press had printed numerous misleading articles, columns, and unsubstantiated opinion/editorial pieces to this effect – nearly all of which originated from Lauritsen and his colleague Hank Wilson. Considering the flawed nature of the studies that reported a health risk associated with alkyl nitrites, it isn’t really surprising that responsible members of the gay press ignored the packets of “medical reports” Lauritsen’s colleague Hank Wilson relentlessly continued to send to the gay press over the years.

As for Lauritsen’s claim that: “in 1982, a scientist sent a letter to the Advocate, describing research which demonstrated that amyl nitrite strongly suppresses the immune systems of mice. The Advocate's editor, the late Robert McQueen, said: We're not interested,” it’s curious that Lauritsen doesn’t identify the scientist. Was this one of the scientists associated with flawed alkyl nitrite research? We will never know.

Lauritsen goes on to further vilify the gay press in his statement that “in 1983, at the request of a poppers manufacturer, the Advocate ran a series of advertisements (Blueprint For Health) which falsely claimed that government studies had exonerated poppers from any connection to AIDS.” The “request” Lauritsen refers to was what is referred to in the advertising industry as an insertion order, the same thing any advertiser uses when they run an advertisement. It is a simple relationship between an advertiser and a publication, nothing more sinister than that. With regard to the statement that the government had exonerated poppers from any connection to AIDS, this was completely accurate. The government, after much research, determined that poppers were not directly causative of AIDS or any related opportunistic infections, including KS.

Along the same vein, Lauritsen’s broad-based comments such as “for most of the gay press, advertising dollars were more important than the lives of gay men” are interesting attempts to bury all members of the gay press in a mass grave of greed. Curiously, this accusation of capitalism at the cost of lives does not seem to include the two sister publications New York Native and Christopher Street, which ran full page popper ads for many years, and both of which bizarrely began relentlessly publishing articles about unsubstantiated dangers of poppers – much like the tabloids that were warning about two-headed space creatures impregnating teenage girls. It will come as no surprise to learn that Lauritsen was closely associated with these papers, both of which saw their readership plummet as a result of the publication of alarmist articles concerning bizarre HIV/AIDS theories and unsubstantiated allegations of dangers supposedly associated with the use of poppers.

Lauritsen also takes aim at Nathan Fain, the health critic of the Advocate, a highly regarded and widely respected gay journalist. The Advocate, which today remains the nation’s largest and most prestigious gay publication, has always been well-known for basing its reporting on facts and good science, and as such was open to slander from anti-poppers AIDS denialists who found their arguments threatened by the publication’s award-winning reporting.

In his closing, Lauritsen also discusses the marketing of alkyl nitrites, claiming “at its peak, the poppers industry was the biggest money-maker in the gay world, grossing upwards of $50 million per year.” This often-repeated statistic, which was first reported in a TIME magazine article in 1978, was simply a guess by the magazine staff and has no basis in fact whatsoever. Why does Lauritsen make use of such unsubstantiated claims? While no one can know for sure, it appears that he has some kind of agenda to marginalize poppers as a compound sold only in the ‘gay world’, perhaps in an effort to support his theory that manufacturers of alkyl nitrites are in some way determined to make a profit at the cost of the gay population’s welfare.

Lauritsen’s final comments are refreshing in this respect, as he finally openly states what he has been hinting at throughout his speech. “Why were these deadly drugs foisted on us?” he asks. “The main reason,” claims Lauritsen “lies in hatred of gay men, including self-hatred. The belief that men who have sex with each other are worthy of death is not new.”

This is certainly conspiracy theory at its worse. To suggest that we should believe Lauritsen’s argument that the U.S. government, along with poppers manufacturers, AIDS organizations and pharmaceutical companies across the United States all banded together in their hatred of homosexuals to market deadly products to the gay population, simply defies logic and belief. Lauritsen argues, “Gay men must recognize the war that is being waged against us, and must fight back. We must stop the poisoning of our brothers”. If there is a “poison”, it is not poppers, as Lauritsen claims. Rather it is the misinformation that Lauritsen provides in his speeches and articles intended to poison the minds of his unsuspecting audience and readers. The antidote to such misinformation? Our own common sense aided by the guidance of peer reviewed, systematic scientific research. A healthy dose of skepticism doesn’t hurt either.

“Some of us have to tell the truth with as much objectivity as possible – some of us with the scientific research-training to evaluate the data at more than its face value.”
~ Dr. Bruce Voeller, Internationally Renowned AIDS Researcher, 1986