How One Woman Won the Fight Against McDonald’s Coffee Stirrers
Here’s a story that’s almost too strange to believe, but I assure you it’s all true. It involves McDonald’s coffee, their now-defunct stirrer, and illegal narcotics. It all started in the 1970s, when the disco was loud, the pants were wide, a small coffee from McDonald’s cost 15 cents, and cocaine use was rampant.
McDonald’s has always been big. The massive corporation hit the “1 millions burgers sold” milestone in 1955, a number that grew to 20 billion by 1976. Alongside their burgers, McDonald’s has sold coffee since the very beginning, with a small cup costing only 15 cents back in the '70s. McDonald’s coffee went without any sort of controversy for years, only to be pulled into the limelight after scalding 79-year-old Stella Liebeck in 1992. But back in the '70s, people were lovin’ it, just like they were loving their cocaine.
Back in the '70s, the rhinestones were shiny, and cocaine was friggin’ everywhere. Because experts and public health officials generally thought the drug was benign, people began taking it in droves, even flagrantly selling coke paraphernalia in magazines. While not everybody had the means to buy ivory drug sniffers, an estimated 11 percent of Americans had done coke by 1979.
Here’s where McDonald’s coffee stirrers come in. As you could’ve guessed, people had started using the free spoon-shaped stirrers that came with their coffee as a means to snort cocaine and PCP. In fact, reports say that a dose of cocaine was often called a “McSpoon” because of the way it was ingested. In 1979, the war on drugs was in full swing and a smaller coup against drug paraphernalia was waged that same year with the DEA’s Model Drug Paraphernalia Act, which lists a number of ways an object can be classified as paraphernalia.
Enter Joyce Nalepka, the former President of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth. Nalepka was a concerned citizen who had somehow caught wind of the sinister use of McDonald’s spoon-shaped stirrers. She went on a personal crusade to get the stirrers banned from all McDonald’s stores.
“I have one more statement that will take about two minutes, that I think is important,” Nalepka said during a hearing before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice in 1979.
“It is an important statement from the business community. The paraphernalia industry has told us several times that the McDonald’s Restaurant coffee stirrer makes an adequate cocaine spoon. That disturbed me. [...] Last evening at 6 o’clock Mr. Edward Schmidt, president of McDonald’s Restaurants, gave me permission to announce to you that McDonald’s will either redesign or discontinue the item altogether.”
So, how had Nalepka done it? All it took was a simple phone call to McDonald’s president, Ed Schmidt. After initially refusing Nalepka’s pleas, Schmidt reconsidered his stance after being asked to think of his kids. Schmidt eventually conceded.
On December 11, 1979, a tiny blurb came out in The Hour announcing the discontinuation of the stirrers: “It has been brought to our attention that people are using them illegally and illicitly for purposes for which they are not intended,” said spokesperson Doug Timberlake, citing Nalepka’s hearing. While the stirrers were officially taken off the market, this didn’t stop people from finding a way to them and using them for drugs. One undercover officer in Columbus, Ohio, reported McSpoons being sold “ten to a bundle in that town and twelve to a bundle in Detroit.” These days, you can find 20 stirrers labeled "used" on Ebay for $29.99.