Patent Medicines with Addictive Substances Necessitated Food and Drug Act
When many people think of patent medicines, they conjure up images of wagons going town to town with sales agents promoting “cure alls,” or of the days of the old west when these drugs gained large-scale popularity. Many people may not realize, however, that patent medicines of the late 1800s and early 1900s contained dangerous drugs like heroin and opium, often without knowledge to the user. The drugs were heavily advertised, and their abuse helped contribute to the establishment of today’s drug regulations that help safeguard millions of prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.
Many makers of the patent medicines of the late 1800s time period sought trademarks, but not true patents – meaning their actual ingredients were unregulated and largely unknown to the public. For example, alcohol was a key ingredient in several popular elixirs. Some patent medicines were fifty percent morphine, prompting many serious addictions and untimely deaths of children.
Early settlers brought some English varieties of patent medicines with them, calling them cure-alls for everything from women’s health issues to fussy babies to stomach problems. They were sold by postmasters, grocery owners and various other tradesmen.
Many patent medicines also contained cocaine, especially during the mid 1800s, and were prescribed to children and infants as well as adults. Arthritis and tuberculosis were also among the list of ailments for which patent medicines could be prescribed, even those claiming to increase breast size or help with male sexual dysfunction.
By the late 1800s, communication tools like the newspaper had spread the word through glamorous advertising about these products, which were still sold in an unregulated market. Even reputable, larger-scale pharmaceutical businesses were reported to sell patent medicines with contents unrevealed to users.
Some early doctors and societies were skeptical of these medicines, claiming they failed to resolve medical problems and contributed to addictions. Temperance efforts in the late 1800s helped lessen some of the use of alcohol-containing patent medicines, and preliminary laws asking makers to reveal the medicines’ ingredients and use more accurate advertising were in place by the early 1900s.
However, the new laws were not favored by the patent medicine manufacturers, who threatened to pull their highly profitable advertising from newspapers if the regulatory laws were enforced. Journalists like Samuel Hopkins Adams who exposed the harmful ingredients and false health promises may be credited with saving thousands of lives before the Pure Food and Drug Act was officially passed in 1906.
From “Cocaine Toothache Drops” to Metcalf’s “Coca Wine,” a wine-based product that included cocaine – to medications for infants containing nearly 50 percent alcohol and opium – many lives were potentially destroyed by the patent medicines of the 1800s and early 1900s. Addiction was both unknown and underestimated during this dangerous time in medical history, in comparison to today’s strict pharmaceutical regulations and tailored addiction therapy programs.