From Poppers to Protease Inhibitors
By John Lauritsen
This talk was delivered at the Queer Studies Symposium, McMaster
University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on Saturday, 15 January
2000. (click on images for bigger ones)
When I use the word "queer", as in "queer advertising", it
is intended to be negative. My leading thesis is that it is
queer -- odd and deplorable -- that in the past 30 years much of
the advertising in ostensibly gay publications has been for
poppers, AZT or the protease inhibitor "cocktails". I shall argue
that these drugs are harmful; they have been and continue to be
the cause of suffering and death for tens or hundreds of thousands
of gay men.
Let's start with the premier gay drug, "poppers". It is
curious, that almost all gay men, but very few others, even know
what "poppers" are. So it's necessary to begin by defining them.
Poppers in their present form are little bottles containing
a liquid mixture of volatile nitrites. When inhaled just before
orgasm, poppers seem to prolong the sensation. Poppers facilitate
anal intercourse by relaxing the muscles in the rectum and
deadening the sense of pain.
From a biochemical standpoint, the volatile or alkyl
nitrites (amyl-, butyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, and other nitrites)
are powerful oxidizing agents. If spilled on the skin, they cause
severe burns. The liquid is highly flammable; one of the worst
fires in San Francisco history occurred when a poppers factory
Since 15 February 1989 poppers have been a "banned hazardous
product" in the United States. It is illegal to manufacture,
distribute, import or sell any isobutyl nitrite substance or any
consumer product "used for inhaling or otherwise introduced into
the body for euphoric or physical effects". The ban is part of the
Drug Omnibus Act of 1988.
The initiative for regulating poppers came from the gay
community itself. West Hollywood, the gayest city in the world,
took the lead in banning poppers. In San Francisco in 1983,
lobbying for the regulation of poppers was led by a group of gay
doctors, the Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, together with
the Committee To Monitor Poppers, founded in 1981 by gay activist
The original poppers were little glass ampules enclosed in
mesh, which were "popped" under the nose and inhaled.
Manufactured by Burroughs-Wellcome, they contained pharmaceutical
amyl nitrite, and were intended for emergency relief of angina
pectoris (heart pain). Amyl nitrite was a controlled substance
until 1960, when the prescription requirement was eliminated by
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). From 1961 to 1969, a few
gay men, primarily those with sadomasochistic proclivities, began
using amyl nitrite as a "recreational" drug. The prescription
requirement was reinstated by the FDA in 1969.
In 1970, a new industry stepped into the breach, marketing
brands of butyl and isobutyl nitrite. One of the most brilliant
advertising campaigns of all time commenced. Within only a few
years hundreds of thousands of men were persuaded that poppers
were an integral part of their "gay identity". The ads conveyed
the message that nothing could be butcher or sexier than to inhale
noxious chemical fumes. Bulging muscles were linked to a drug
that is indisputably hazardous to the health.
At its peak, the poppers industry was the biggest money-
maker in the gay world, grossing upwards of $50 million per year.
Gay publications were delighted with the revenues they received
from running full-page, four-color ads for the various brands of
poppers. In a 1983 letter to the Advocate, poppers manufacturer
Joseph F. Miller, President of Great Lakes Products, Inc., boasted
he was the "largest advertiser in the Gay press".
For gay men who came out in the '70s, poppers appeared to be
as much a part of the gay clone lifestyle as mustaches or flannel
shirts. Accessories were marketed: for leather queans, there were
little metal inhalers on leather thongs. One magazine had a comic
strip entitled "Poppers"; its hero, Billy, was a child-like but
sexy blond, whose two main loves in life were sex and poppers.
By 1974 the poppers craze was in full swing, and by 1977
poppers were in every corner of gay life. At gay discotheques men
could be seen shuffling around in a daze, holding little bottles
under the nose. At gay gathering places -- bars, baths, leather
clubs -- the poppers miasma was taken for granted.
Some gay men became so addicted to poppers that they snorted
nitrite fumes around the clock. For some, poppers became a sexual
crutch, without which they were incapable of having sex, even
A number of factors help explain why poppers became a mass
phenomenon among gay men:
Poppers were legal. So long as they were labelled "room
odorizers" and marketed only to gay men, the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) looked the other way.
Poppers were affordable. A bottle could sell for as
little as $2.99, a lot less than heroin, cocaine, or whisky.
Poppers were assumed to be harmless. The name "poppers"
sounds amusing, innocuous. There had been no word in the gay
press that poppers were harmful.
But poppers are harmful. They damage the immune system.
They injure the lungs. They can cause severe or fatal anemia.
Poppers are strongly mutagenic, and have the potential to cause
cancer by producing deadly N-nitroso compounds. Poppers can cause
death or brain damage from cardiovascular collapse or stroke.
Poppers have been used successfully to commit suicide (by
drinking) and murder. (The victim was gagged with a sock soaked
There are strong epidemiological links between the use of
poppers and the development of AIDS illnesses, especially Kaposi's
sarcoma (or KS), an affliction of the blood vessels. In AIDS
cases, KS is found almost entirely among gay men who used poppers,
not among members of other "risk groups". For at least five years
the top AIDS experts, including Robert Gallo, have known that HIV
is not the cause of KS. This was admitted publicly at a 1994
meeting of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. (see ref..)
At present, the nitrites-KS hypothesis is as strong as any,
from the standpoints of both epidemiology and biochemistry:
poppers are a potent mutagen and affect the blood vessels. It is
suggestive, that many gay men who used poppers developed KS of the
upper lips, nose, and lungs -- the route of poppers inhalation.
Beginning in 1981 San Francisco activist Hank Wilson,
founder of the Committee to Monitor Poppers, regularly sent out
packets of medical reports to the gay press. These were ignored.
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." Still in 1982, the
Bay Area Reporter (BAR) in San Francisco ran the longest editorial
in its entire history, attacking Hank Wilson for criticizing
poppers. 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.
For most of the gay press advertising dollars were more
important than the lives of gay men. Among the few exceptions
were the New York Native and Christopher Street, which ran
articles on the dangers of poppers. For doing so they were
attacked by the late Nathan Fain, "health critic" of the
I began collaborating with Wilson in 1983. We published a
series of pamphlets and, in 1986, a little book, Death Rush:
Poppers & AIDS. In 1983 I spoke out publicly against poppers for
the first time, at a meeting of the New York Safer Sex Committee.
I was savagely attacked on the spot by a gay physician (now dead
from "AIDS"), who waved his arms and screamed at me like a maniac.
That evening I received a death threat. The phone rang. It was a
woman who said, coldly and professionally: "Don't be surprised if
you don't wake up in the morning. [CLICK]"
Now it's 2000, eleven years after poppers were outlawed, and
not much has changed. Poppers are no longer advertised in the
American gay press, but they are readily available and sold over
the Internet. The largest circuit party of all, the Black & Blue,
held annually in Montreal, has "Zee-Best Leather Cleaner" as a
major sponsor. (I would not recommend using this product on your
Banning poppers isn't the answer. Our task is to get the
word out, that poppers really are dangerous. We have to
counteract the disinformation that has been disseminated -- not
only by the poppers industry, but also by government agencies and
I'll close the poppers portion of my talk with three words:
Don't use poppers!
Gay publications in the U.S. no longer carry ads for
poppers. Their place has been taken by AIDS commodities: condoms,
viatical settlement companies, funeral services, and drugs. The
most prominent advertising in the late '80s, the "Living With HIV"
campaign, promoted the drug AZT (also known as Retrovir and
zidovudine). Now we see ads for protease inhibitors, part of the
drug "cocktails" that are touted as HAART ("highly active anti-
In a typical ad -- for Crixivan -- a young man is shown
clinging to the sheer face of a cliff, ready to plunge thousands
of feet to his death; the header says: "In the battle against
HIV..." On the opposite page the same young man is standing on a
level place, calmly surveying the vista below; the header says:
"there's a change in outlook." The change is from anxiety at
imminent peril to calmness and hope, thanks to Crixivan. The
third page of the ad consists of fine print, mostly devoted to the
However, overt advertising plays only a small role in the
promotion of the current AIDS drugs. Far more important are the
public relations (PR) firms, which do their work surreptitiously.
(On this topic I recommend John Stauber's book, Toxic Sludge Is
Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations
The world's largest PR firm, Burson-Marsteller has for
clients SmithKline, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Glaxo-Wellcome -- and
the giant pharmaceutical firms undoubtedly use other PR firms as
well. The PR campaign on behalf of the protease inhibitor drugs,
which began in 1996, represents a triumph for the industry.
Within a short time almost everyone came to believe that AIDS
deaths were falling because of the new drugs. The media were
filled with "Lazarus" stories: thanks to the new HAART cocktails
men would get up from their deathbeds to return to work, play
tennis, or perhaps climb mountains. (Stories that contradicted
this propaganda -- healthy people who took the drugs and then died
of liver failure -- were rigorously suppressed.)
There is no basis in reality for the claim that protease
inhibitors have reduced AIDS deaths. A sharp drop in new "AIDS
diagnoses" and in "AIDS" deaths began several years before the
protease inhibitors were put on the market. Further, according to
American "AIDS expert" Anthony Fauci of NAIAD, no more than 10% of
the eligible "HIV-positive" population have ever taken a protease
inhibitor, and half of them must stop taking the drugs because
they can't tolerate the toxicities. Therefore, the protease
inhibitors are absurdly being given credit for reducing the death
rate among the 95% of eligible HIV-positive people who are no
longer taking them, or who never did in the first place. Further,
the protease inhibitor propaganda -- instant recovery, immediate
drop in AIDS deaths -- contradicts a basic tenet of HIV mythology:
that a long latency period (from 8 to 12 or even 15 years) lies
between HIV infection and the appearance of "AIDS" symptoms; that
HIV is a slow virus (lentivirus), which takes a long, long time to
do anything. Finally, there are objectively healthy people who
took the cocktails and then died before developing one of the 29
"AIDS-indicator" diseases; these "deaths before diagnosis" are not
counted as "AIDS deaths".
In a leading hospital in Massachusetts, deaths from liver
failure caused by protease inhibitor drugs are the leading cause
of death among those with an "HIV-positive" diagnosis. Many of
the victims had no symptoms before taking the drugs.
In fact, no clinical study has ever demonstrated that the
protease inhibitor cocktails improve the health or survival rates
of those taking them. The success of the drugs is gauged entirely
through two surrogate markers, CD4 counts and the "viral load"
test, both of which are worthless.
Protease inhibitors are entirely harmful. They attack the
liver, kidneys, and pancreas. They cause severe headaches,
diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. They damage the nerves. They
cause muscular pain and atrophy. They cause diabetes and high
blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks.
The effects are not pretty. The arms and legs waste away,
and the face begins to look like a death's head. Veins protrude
on the limbs and side of the face. The eyes look glassy. Fat
accumulates on the belly ("Crix belly") and the back of the neck
("buffalo hump"). The complexion acquires an unhealthy dark red
hue, and sometimes, as the liver and kidneys are failing, a
grayish putty color.
One drug found in many cocktails is AZT, a highly toxic
drug, which was approved by the FDA on the basis of fraudulent
research. The drug's biochemical mechanism of action is simple:
it kills cells by terminating DNA synthesis, the life process
itself. And it kills people; 94% of all AIDS deaths in the United
States occurred after AZT was approved for marketing in 1987.
In the American gay press, Christopher Street and the New
York Native were alone in criticizing the premier AIDS drug. The
rest of the gay press carried the "Living With HIV" ads and
suppressed all information that was not favorable to AZT -- just
as a decade before they had carried the ads for poppers and
suppressed information about their toxicities.
We gay men are in a bad situation indeed, if what is
supposed to be our press is controlled by those who are
indifferent or even hostile to our welfare. Why were these deadly
drugs foisted on us? The profit motive, of course, but I think
the main reason 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; it goes back to a taboo formulated 2500 years
ago by the Levites, the priestly class of the tribe of Judah, as
part of their Holiness Code. The history and ramifications of
that horrible taboo are the core of my latest book, A
Freethinker's Primer of Male Love.
Gay men must recognize the war that is being waged against
us, and must fight back. We must stop the poisoning of our
brothers. We must defend Free Speech, with no holds barred.
Somehow, we must reclaim, or establish from scratch, an honest and
healthy way of communicating with each other.
John Lauritsen is a Survey Analyst, and
covered the AIDS war as a Journalist for the New York Native.
Lauritsen is the author of 'The AIDS War; Propaganda, profiteering and genocide from the medical-industrial complex' and 'Poison by Prescription; The AZT Story'. He is the co-editor of 'The AIDS Cult'.