The United States was not the first imperial power to try to halt the consumption of proscribed substances. Spanish authorities in colonial Peru, for instance, reversed their early tolerance of coca chewing, known as el coqueo, as they sought to transform indigenous Inca culture and develop a productive workforce to serve Spain's material and spiritual interests. In the process there arose a debate, which continued well into the twentieth century, over whether to prohibit native cultivation and use of coca. Like coca, opium has a complex past that is intermingled with issues of culture and power. The grafting of opium onto the culture of China roughly coincides with the history of the Qing dynasty. Opium smoking, likely enjoyed first by Chinese in Jakarta, Indonesia, evolved out of the habit of tobacco smoking. By the time of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars, when the dynasty showed unmistakable signs of instability, opium addiction permeated Chinese society.
The persistence of el coqueo among the indigenous people of Peru and the prevalence of opium cultivation and smoking among the very poor in China coincided around 1900 with a wave of reform, or prohibitionist, sentiments in both countries. The War of the Pacific, in which Chile defeated both Peru and Bolivia, lasted from 1879 to 1883 and briefly devastated Peru. Andean Indians endured especially oppressive conditions in the war's aftermath. The prospect of political change and with it, a wide spectrum of social reforms, revitalized Peru after a revolution in 1895. Inevitably some reformers asked whether traditional Indian reliance on coca had a place in modern Peru. Around the same time in Asia, the Qing dynasty came under intense pressure from Confucian scholars and others to implement broad reforms as foreign powers vied with one another to obtain concessions and create spheres of influence. Destroying the opium business became a basic part of the reform agenda in China. Chang Chih-tung, a powerful scholar-official and advocate of reform, wrote, "The development of education is the best medicine to use for the suppression of opium."