Are Patent Medicines Dangerous? (Mar, 1953)
Are Patent Medicines Dangerous?
BY ROBERT L. HEILBRONER
Down in Washington. D.C., a constant, unobtrusive cold war is being waged by three organizations—the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and a quiet institution known as The Proprietary Association.
These three groups are vigilantly protecting the consumer against foods, drugs, and cosmetics that are adulterated, or labeled or advertised with false or misleading statements.
They also do occasional battle with the remnants of the once-famous quack-medicine makers, known to some as “the patent-medicine industry.” They were fugitives from justice, with a record both long and nauseating. Theirs was at best a cold-blooded operation built on the principle that there is no buck so easy to wangle as the buck of a person in pain.
These charlatans were not selective about their customers. They preyed upon the poor and ignorant, but caught some rich fish in their net, too. Some years ago, a wealthy Pittsburgh steel manufacturer fell victim to the lure of an advertisement for Radithor, a product described as an unfailing source of pep and vitality and an efficacious treatment for those diseases a man does not like to talk about in public. Radithor, which fortunately did not obtain wide distribution, was clearly labeled as “Certified Radioactive Water.” and it would provide pep and vitality—for a while. But when the victim died some months later, there was enough radium lodged in his jawbones alone to paint the dials of a whole string of luminous clocks.
In an equally deplorable case, a man gathered a weed known as horsetail, frequently found growing along a railroad right of way. and from this produced a concoction he sold as a cure for diabetes. The Food and Drug Administration took action against this man. and during the course of the trial showed that his “cure” had caused a number of people to discontinue insulin and proper diet and no doubt caused their death. The Government produced as witnesses outstanding specialists in diabetes, but unfortunately the Government lost the case and was thus unable to stop distribution. The case was lost when the Government was unable to prove the man knew his statements were incorrect at the time he sold the nostrum, an almost impossible thing to prove.
These cases were early in the thirties, when the Food and Drug Administration was operating under an act passed in 1906. Now a modern and drastic act passed in 1938 not only protects the consuming public but makes it easier for The Proprietary Association to deal with the few remaining patent-medicine makers of the past.
Under this new act the story is different. And so, had you been in Terre Haute. Indiana, last fall you might have attended the trial of an “herb doctor” who could neither read nor write but who did not let these trifling impediments deter him from turning mankind’s ills to his private benefit. The prize exhibit in this case was a pathetic woman who had come to him four and a half years before with a small cancer of the breast for which her doctor urged immediate surgery, with a 99 per cent chance of total cure. Instead, she was sold on a mixture of mint leaves, boneset flowers, and a little castor oil and milk. She appeared at the trial with cancer of the lungs, paralyzed from the hips down. This so-called “herb doctor” was convicted by a Federal court.
Just backwoods folks who don’t know any better? Let’s move to New York City, a locale hardly known for its naivete. Four years ago, in a good many newspapers and on one of the biggest local radio stations you could have learned the merits of a new “wonder product.” It was said this product would uncork arthritic joints and that it had been tested by a leading university (unspecified). It was not sold merely as a palliative but was directed at the “disturbances in metabolism” that underlie rheumatism, lumbago, neuritis, and arthritis. Before the authorities caught up with it, millions of dollars’ worth of it had been sold. The price: two bucks. The active ingredient: largely aspirin. The results: none at all. And this is only a sampling of the horror stories from the quack-medicine industry of the past. Most businesses and professions are plagued by an unscrupulous fringe, and the proprietary-medicine industry is no exception. There still lurk in the corners of our nation, sizing you up as a likely prospect, remnants of that quack-medicine industry.
Phony Cures for Everything There was a firm recently closed up in Cleveland that sold another phony arthritis cure and one in New Jersey that hawked a useless rheumatism cure. There was an outfit that obligingly mailed you habit-forming barbiturates without a prescription, and another that promoted a vitamin compound for “liver anemia.”
The term patented medicine means a medicine upon which the United States Patent Office has granted a letter of patent. Few of these products can be purchased without a physician’s prescription.
The term patent medicine is sometimes applied to the medicines usually found in the home medicine chest, but more commonly it is used by those attempting to prevent or disparage self-medication. They place all types of medicines, good and bad, in the same category with those distributed many years ago by the quack-medicine industry.
Some people will argue that you should not self-medicate. But the Congress of the United States has recognized the right of self-medication. One of its committees, in a report prepared to accompany the bill that finally became the present Food. Drug, and Cosmetic Act, stated: “This bill is not intended to restrict in any way the availability of drugs for self-medication. On the contrary, it is intended to make self-medication safer.”
The term proprietary medicine^ means that the manufacturer has a proprietor’s right to the manufacture and sale of the particular product. The brand-name medicines in your medicine chest are the proprietary medicines. In practically all instances, these goods are manufactured by a reliable organization that puts its guarantee behind the preparations.
The $800,000,000 proprietary industry that turns out the thousand and one things that treat our outsides and insides stands about as far away from the vicious fringe as the courthouse from the city jail. In contradistinction to the drug charlatans, the reputable drug industry has positively developed a crick in its back from bending over backward to see to it that the consumer can doctor himself safely.
But just as there are too many people who fall sucker to the drug frauds, there are too many who don’t know about or use the protection that is there.
“I think there’s something wrong with all patent medicines,” said a housewife I talked to in Washington. “I know I wouldn’t have them in my house.” I asked her if she kept aspirin there. “Oh, that’s not a patent medicine,” she said.
“I tell you how it is.” said an elderly individual I chatted with in Brooklyn. “These drug companies are all in cahoots, see? They sell the stuff your grandmother used to cook up on the back of the stove and charge you through the nose for it.”
“I once read in a book that they put ground glass in tooth paste to make your teeth shine,” a high-school student told me. “Is that true?”
It isn’t true—any of it.
Aspirin is a patent medicine as certain folks use the word, though truly it is a proprietary medicine, or a brand-named product. Its worth is proved, and it saves the American consumer untold doctors’ bills for the relief of minor woes.
Many Products Are Time-tested There are many products on the market that have been sold under the same brand name for a great many years, but they are not being turned out in a haphazard manner. They have withstood the test of years of usage, and most of them have been subjected to a thorough scientific study to prove their worth.
Perhaps half the drugs on sale now were unknown ten years ago, and they represent not hand-me-down folklore, but the best of laboratory and clinical research. Nor is the industry raking in gold shekels from the drug counters; it earns only a modest profit on its sales.
Furthermore, there isn’t any ground glass in tooth paste. Yes, there once was such a tooth paste, along with a soothing syrup for babies that contained morphine, and a horse liniment that was sold to the public for the cure of pneumonia, varicose veins, and tender feet. But these are relics of a bygone day when the consumer was always wrong. Today the drug makers spend about $15,000,000 a year just for research and control, and new products must be approved by the Government before being released for sale. For example, take the case of a well-known manufacturer, one of whose products suddenly and unaccountably went bad after a spotlessly clean record for well over fifty years. There was absolutely nothing injurious about this particular medicine—it just caused those who took it to become sick to their stomachs.
Even though the bad medicine represented only a small part of several million bottles in the hands of the trade, the manufacturer went to previously unheard-of lengths to recall every last bottle. To accomplish this, a warning was broadcast over every radio station associated with each of the national networks; large space advertisements were published in every one of the 1,700-odd daily newspapers from coast to coast, and last but not least, all of the manufacturer’s sales forces were given the sole task of locating and having returned to the factory every bottle on the market. Although millions of bottles—good and bad—were destroyed and none was available for about a year, this same product again enjoys a widespread—and even greater—demand. Today this medicine undergoes over a hundred tests before it reaches the public. As a result, the consuming public can again purchase this proprietary medicine with absolute confidence.
And that meticulousness is not confined to one company. A headache remedy recently put on the market was four years in the testing stages. A tooth-paste maker frantically embargoed shipments when he found that more water softener than the formula called for had turned up in a batch of paste. “You can’t take any chances in this business,” he told me. A gargle manufacturer during the last war faced a shortage of alcohol. Rather than dilute his product—which would have been unnoticeable—he kept it intact and took the loss in sales.
All this is a far cry from the shady practitioners who make the headlines. The fly-by-nights obey only the laws of the jungle, but the reputable industry has three taskmasters keeping it on the straight and narrow path. First is the Food and Drug Administration, guardian of the fifty billion dollars’ worth of food, medicines, and cosmetics that Americans buy every year. Its inspectors are apt to drive up unannounced and go through a drug maker’s plant from top to bottom.
“The danger to the public isn’t that the decent companies make quack medicines,” says George P. Larrick, deputy commissioner of food and drugs. “They work with us, not against us. The danger is with the medical quacks who put the whole home-medicine field in disrepute.” Thus, while Food and Drug may debate with the industry about the instructions that should appear on the label of a new medicine, its real concern is with such operations as a clinic it recently closed up in Dallas, where thousands of cancer sufferers took two medicines—a pink one and a brown one—at a yearly cost of $400.
Advertisements Are Screened The second taskmaster is another Government watchdog—the Federal Trade Commission. Last year its readers scanned something like a million pages of advertising matter, from lawn mowers to layettes, with a sharp eye out for the patent medicines that may gull the public with fraudulent claims. “It’s the rotten one per cent of the industry that gives us ninety-nine per cent of our trouble,” said one investigatory official.
The third taskmaster is the industry’s own answer to its public responsibility. It is The Proprietary Association, run by the stout, soft-spoken Dr. Frederick J. Cullen, whose quiet manner belies the fact that he has a Purple Heart and a silver star with palms to his credit as a wartime medico. Dr. Cullen, once an official of the Food and Drug Administration, now is adviser to the industry.
The objective of Dr. Cullen and The Proprietary Association is not merely an industry that is up-to-the-minute in scientific know-how but one that is socially honest as well. To this end they arrange scientific meetings among the country’s top lab and clinical men, and, more important, perhaps, they have set up an advertising advisory committee that firmly sits on the superlatives of admen.
Last year, over ten thousand pieces of advertising copy went before Dr. Cullen’s learned and disenchanted eye. “We’re not only after good taste in advertising,” he explains, “but we want to be absolutely sure that the public isn’t oversold on claims that can’t be backed. Advertising agencies frequently write copy saying that a remedy will kill a cold. We don’t let them say that, nor would the Federal Trade Commission, for that matter We can’t even let an ad say that a remedy is a good way to .combat a cold. Products recommended for treating colds can afford relief, but cure is something else. We watch for the word and take it out.
“Take this radio script. It talks about something ‘stopping chest congestion.’ I don’t like that phrase-—such a congestion may indicate pneumonia—and I’ll suggest they change it.
“But no matter how much we police ourselves and no matter how vigilant Government agencies are, there’s only one person who can really put the fly-by-nighters out of business. That’s the consumer. We depend on public trust, and we do our best to earn it. We want the public to work with us in stamping out that dangerous fringe of our industry that is still a menace to our health.”
How is a consumer to tell the sheep from the goats?
Short of conducting your own laboratory analyses, you can do it only by making careful purchases. When you buy a proprietary medicine, you are pinning your faith on the manufacturer. Yet half the time you don’t even look to see who made the product you’re buying. If you deal with a reputable druggist, there’s no reason why you should—it’s his business to carry only the best in stock.
But there are warnings you should heed, warnings in which the Food and Drug people, the Federal Trade Commission, and The Proprietary Association all join: 1. Beware of all ads with the word cure in them. Proprietaries, even the best of them, do not claim to cure anything. Their business is to relieve pain, to help you over the unpleasantness of symptoms, not to do the work that only nature can accomplish. Note that the best-known drugstore remedies do not claim to cure you. They aim to help you.
2. Stay away from all drugs claiming to treat diabetes, cancer, arthritis, or joint rheumatism. These are serious ills, and any attempt to doctor yourself before you’ve had professional counsel may result in worsening your condition. There are no reputable proprietaries that make hopeful claims for these diseases.
3. Beware the testimonial ad. That’s not to say that testimonials aren’t a perfectly honest method of advertising. But when testimonials are hitched onto drugs claiming to fix up this and that, or when they exceed the claims included in labeling, think twice before you become convinced. Just remember the sad case of the man who came to court to back up his written testimonial for an illicit anti-TB drug, and then died before the trial was over—of TB.
4. Don’t fall for extravagant claims, especially in medicine. By and large, the better the product the more restrained and factual its advertising. “Miracle.” “amazing.” “sensational,” etc., usually mean that the advertiser hasn’t got clinical data to put before you.
5. Watch out for health foods. Sure. vitamins and minerals are good for you. Just don’t go for the concoctions that serve them dressed up with obscure hints about their relations to diabetes, rheumatism, and the like. One firm recently under Federal fire had 15,000 salesmen out selling a health food that didn’t say it would cure anything but pointed out that people who weren’t taking it were dying of all sorts of alarming diseases. Nai’ve? Its sales ran over a million dollars a month.
6. Think twice before you buy from door-to-door drug salesmen. Most reputable drug houses sell you through your drugstore, which is where you should go to buy medicines. However, reliable manufacturers do distribute various types of products, including medicinal preparations, from house to house, particularly in rural areas. It is extremely important that you know the salesman and the company he represents. Be cautious about the nice-looking lad with the gift of gab; when he talks to you in the privacy of your parlor he doesn’t have to answer to the Federal Trade Commission for the claims he makes for his product.
7. Don’t ask your druggist to sell you something he’s not supposed to. The proprietaries have been passed on by the nation’s best authorities as being safe for home use. You are not only asking your druggist to break the law when you ask him for a prescription medicine without a prescription, but you are trifling with your own life.
8. Read the label! It’s not there for advertising purposes; it’s there to keep you out of trouble. Drugs are not candy; when it says “one every four hours,” it doesn’t mean one every half hour.
9. Know the brand names and their manufacturers. It takes little difficulty or time to obtain information concerning the reliability of a manufacturer who produces medicines. You should be informed about the manufacturer of the brand-named products you include in your medicine chest. A reputable manufacturer stands squarely behind his product.
And having done all that—relax. If you don’t know what you’re doing, if you are unaware of the safeguards that have been set up for your own protection, it is possible to fall into some of the most unscrupulous hands in America when you don’t feel so good and start thinking about dosing yourself. But if you take advantage of the protection that is there, your medicine chest should house the most dependable products in your home.