The Great American Fraud: the Patent Medicine Evil

Samuel Hopkins Adams, The Great American Fraud. Collier’s Weekly, 7 October 1905. “…[T]he introductory article of a [six-part] series…contain[s] a full explanation and exposure of patent-medicine methods, and the harm done to the public by this industry, founded mainly on fraud and poison. Results of the publicity given to these methods can already be seen in the steps recently taken by the National Government, some State Governments and a few of the more reputable newspapers. The object of the series is to make the situation so familiar and thoroughly understood that there will be a speedy end to the worst aspects of the evil.”

Excerpts from story:

Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, and a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud. For fraud, exploited by the skillfulest of advertising bunco men, is the basis of the trade. Should the newspapers, the magazines and the medical journals refuse their pages to this class of advertisements, the patent-medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South Sea Bubble….

Acetanilid will undoubtedly relieve headache of certain kinds; but acetanilid, as the basis of headache powders, is prone to remove the cause of the symptoms permanently by putting a complete stop to the heart action. Invariably, when taken steadily, it produces constitutional disturbances of insidious development which result fatally if the drug be not discontinued, and often it enslaves the devotee to its use. Cocain and opium stop pain; but the narcotics are not the safest drugs…particularly when their presence is concealed in the ‘cough remedies,’ ‘soothing syrups,’ and ‘catarrhal powders’ of which they are the basis….

The Magic ‘Red Clause.’ With a few honorable exceptions the press of the United states is at the beck and call of the patent medicines. Not only do the newspapers modify news possibly affecting these interests, but they sometimes become their active agents. F. J. Cheney, proprietor of Hall’s Catarrh Cure, devised some years ago a method of making the press do his fighting against legislation compelling makers of remedies to publish their formulae…. He…printed in red letters on every advertising contract a clause providing that the contract should become void in the event of hostile legislation….

Fake Testimonials. [R]eporters were assigned to secure testimonials with photographs which subsequently appeared in the full-page advertisement as promised. As for the men who permitted the use of their names for this purpose, several of them afterward admitted that they had never tasted the ‘compound,’ but that they were willing to sign the testimonials for the joy of appearing in print as ‘prominent citizens.’ Another Chicago newspaper compelled its political editor to tout for fake endorsements of a nostrum. A man with an inside knowledge of the patent-medicine business made some investigations into this phase of the matter, and he declares that such procurement of testimonials became so established as to have the force of a system, only two Chicago papers being free from it….

Legislation is the most obvious remedy, pending the enlightenment of the general public or the awakening of the journalistic conscience. But legislation proceeds slowly and always against opposition, which may be measured in practical terms as $250,000,000 at stake on the other side….

Additional information: Samuel V. Kennedy, Samuel Hopkins Adams and the Business of Writing1999, Chapter 5, pp. 43-59.

Excerpt from book:

The patent medicine business…sales came from heavy advertising in newspapers and magazines that derived substantial income from the manufacturers. Millions bought the nostrums that were for the most part ineffectual; some of the syrups contained as much as 80 percent alcohol, and many of the tonics used cocaine and morphine.

The use of dangerous drugs in patent medicines has been explained by medical historian David F. Musto in his The American Disease; Origins of Narcotic Control: “The characteristics of opium and its derivatives were ideal for patent medicine manufacturers…. Many proprietary medicines that could be bought in any store or by mail order contained morphine, cocaine, laudanum, or (after 1898) heroin…. Even ‘cures’ for the opium habit contained large amounts of opiates. Hay fever remedies frequently contained cocaine as their active ingredient. Coca-Cola, until 1903, contained cocaine (and since then caffeine). Opiates and cocaine became popular–if unrecognized–items in the everyday life of Americans.”