A Clemson professor’s detailed study of ‘snake oil’ cures from long ago reveals connections to current pharma industry woes
A Clemson professor has authored a detailed study of investigative reporters’ work over the last century to expose corruption involved in the sale of various purported cure-alls, and the study has revealed surprising connections to current trends in supplement sales.
Bryan E. Denham, professor in Clemson’s communication department, has authored a new monograph, “Magazine Journalism in the Golden Age of Muckraking: Patent Medicine Exposures Before and After the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.” The study documents how investigative reporters—then commonly referred to as “muckrakers”—exposed corruption and graft in both government and private industry when peddlers of “patent medicines” appeared atop the list of questionable characters.
Patent, or proprietary, medicines came in the form of over-the-counter cure-alls, headache remedies, and child soothing syrups, but often included substances such as morphine, cocaine, cannabis, and alcohol, according to Denham. He said the ability of companies to hide ingredients behind a trade name meant consumers went decades with little-to-no knowledge of what they were ingesting.
“Patent medicines were not patented in the traditional sense. Manufacturers registered a trade name instead of a list of ingredients with the U.S. Patent Office, which allowed companies to keep ingredients unknown to patent-medicine users,” Denham said. “For this reason, people often attributed recovery from illness to nostrums and elixirs instead of their own bodies and immune systems.”
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 banned interstate shipment of mislabeled foods and drugs, and it required manufacturers of patent medicines to list all habit-forming substances on product labels. The 1906 law is considered a landmark policy in food and drug regulation, and Denham said investigative reporter Samuel Hopkins Adams and magazine editor Edward Bok have received much of the credit for exposing the patent-medicine industry and building an agenda for reform.
However, Denham said journalists identified as many problems following implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act as they did prior to it, and similar problems continue to exist with food and drug policy. He cited ongoing issues with the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), a law stipulating that supplement manufacturers do not have to demonstrate product safety and efficacy prior to marketing.
“In many ways, patent medicines were precursors to certain types of dietary supplements, which have been found to contain anabolic steroids, amphetamines, antidepressants, and erectile dysfunction medicines, among other substances,” Denham said. “Some companies are willing to take their chances that government agencies will not inspect their products, and the gamble usually pays off just as it did following implementation of the 1906 law.”
Prior to working on the recent study, Denham studied sports supplements spiked with banned performance enhancers, noting how unlisted supplement ingredients have caused athletes in multiple sports to receive suspensions from competition. While necessary, systemic changes have not occurred.
“Industry lobbies can be quite powerful,” Denham said, “and they often prove successful at persuading policymakers to leave existing regulations alone. Policies like DSHEA could be reformed without much legislative effort, but industry representatives keep close watch on policy developments. It’s hard to blame them from a financial standpoint. Dietary supplements are now a $40 billion industry in the U.S.”
Denham said the advertising and marketing strategies established by patent-medicine manufacturers continue to impact the business world. In addition to demonstrating the profit potential of newspaper advertising, manufacturers also developed branding techniques by selling products in unique bottles and containers. That practice continues with many products, as purchasers simply look for familiar packaging.
“This was one of the most interesting projects I’ve completed,” Denham said. “It contained elements of communication, history, public health and marketing. Those intersections are often the most thought-provoking.”
Denham has held the Campbell Professorship in Sports Communication in the Department of Communication at Clemson for 21 years. He focuses his scholarly research on substance use in sport and society and has published approximately 60 peer-reviewed journal articles.