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Snake Oil: Slipping Through
Healthcare Cracks

by Linda Jenkinson |

snake oil

"Snake Oil" The phrase rouses visions of roadside hucksters selling magic in a bottle. However, when snake oil first emerged on the American landscape it was a real cure for what ailed Transcontinental Railroad workers.

Thousands of Chinese came to the United States in the 1800s to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Many of them brought along their traditional Chinese medicines, one of which was snake oil. Chinese snake oil was made from the oil of the Chinese water snake. Rich in omega-3 acids, the lotion was effective in soothing inflamed joints. It wasn't long before some enterprising Americans fabricated new concoctions of snake oil. Some substituted rattle snake oil for the Chinese water snake oil, but since it was ineffective, soon any oil would do (although it didn't). By the end of the 19th centrury, snake oil was synonymous with any remedy that offered more hype than hope.(1)

The late 19th century was a hey day for Patent medicines.

  1. Until it became illegal in 1924, opium was used for everything from calming teething babies to relieving the agony of war injuries on the battlefield.
  2. Blood tonics, concocted from beef blood, alcohol, glycerine, and salt, were a popular "pick me up".
  3. Cocaine was one of the main ingredients in original Coca Cola, which was originally marketed as a brain tonic. Cocaine could also be purchased in tablets to relieve sore throat and headache.
  4. Dr Pepper was also sold as a brain tonic.
  5. Poisons such as Arsenic and strychnine were both available as over the counter medicines. Arsenic was sold to treat serious illnesses such as leukemia and malaria as well as superficial maladies like skin breakouts and irritations. Strychnine was sold as an aphrodisiac.
  6. Radithor was distilled from radium by "Doctor" William Bailey. When wealthy industrialist Eben Byers met a grisly end from the tonic, it was investigated and removed from pharmacies. A 1932 Wall Street Journal article cracked "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off."(2)

All that glistens is not snake oil. Prescription drug problems are rampant.

The truth is that Americans are still not smart about healthcare today. Vast numbers of us still succumb to advertising hucksters that peddle everything from snake oils to electronic doodads and contraptions.(3)

Overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. Opioid deaths are reaching epidemic proportions. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription drugs and heroin) has quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, opioid deaths in the United States hit a record-breaking 33,000.(4)

The Teamsters' Union is targeting the three largest U.S. opioid drug wholesalers—McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen—for flooding hard-hit areas with the highly addictive pills. The Teamsters are also using their clout as pension fund investors to demand that drug wholesalers take responsibility for their lack of oversight, conduct full investigations of their distribution practices, and hold CEOs accountable and big pharma certainly needs to be held to account.(5)

More than 80 percent of patient groups are Pharma-funded

Regularly during citizen open-mike sessions at FDA drug advisory committee hearings groups of “patients” materializes out of nowhere. Eyes flowing with tears, they testify about the need for a new drug or new use approval. It can’t be a generic drug, because "they are just not the same." The more expensive, the better for everybody—or at least for the companies that bring the testifiers into the spotlight.

More than 80 percent of patient groups are Pharma-funded, the New York Times reported on March 1, including the National Hemophilia Foundation, the American Diabetes Association and the National Psoriasis Foundation.

Most nefarious, though, are the mental health front groups like the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) and Mental Health America. The use of Psychiatric drugs in the elderly has become epidemic, is linked to death in those with dementia, and is an under-reported cause of falls.(6)

Drug Recalls

Besides snake oil concoctions, contraption pitch men, and perscription drug abuse, the American public must contend with big pharma that is eager to flood the market with new drugs but reluctant to recall failed drugs no matter how many people they injure. The following is just a smattering, not even the tip of the pill pile.

  • Propoxephene marketed byXanodyne under the names Darvon and Darvocetwas on the market for 55 years (1955-2010). It was finally recalled for serious toxicity to the heart spurred by the over 2,110 deaths reported between 1981 and 1999.
  • DES (Diethylstibestrol) synthetic estrogen originally approved to prevent miscarriage, premature labor, and other pregnancy complications. Manufactured by Grant Chemical Co., among its many shortfalls, it was found to cause cancer of the cervix and vagina as well as birth defects and other developmental abnormalities in children born to women who took the drug while pregnant. Although studies in the 1950s showed the drug was not effective at preventing miscarriages, premature labor, or other pregnancy complications the drug remained on the market from 1940 until 1971.
  • Raptiva (Efalizumab) was on the market for 6 years from 2003 to 2009. Developed for psoriasis, it caused PML (progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy) a rare and usually fatal disease that causes inflammation or progressive damage of the white matter in multiple locations of the brain.
  • Vioxx (Rofecoxib) was developed by Merck to be a pain reliever (NSAID), but instead, increased the risk of heart attack and stroke. It was linked to about 27,785 heart attacks or sudden cardiac deaths between May 20, 1999 and 2003. Before it was recalled, Vioxx was prescribed to more than 20 million people.(7)

The FDA has regulatory oversight over a large array of products that affect the health and life of American citizens.

A $1.8 million 2006 Institute of Medicine report on pharmaceutical regulation in the U.S. found major deficiencies in the current FDA system for ensuring the safety of drugs on the American market. Overall, the authors called for an increase in the regulatory powers, funding, and independence of the FDA.

The FDA has also been criticized from the opposite viewpoint, as being too tough on industry. Excessive regulation is blamed for the rising costs of health care and the creation of monopolies, as potential competitors are unable to get FDA approval to enter the market to compete and keep health care costs down.(8)


  1. “A History Of ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’ : Code Switch : NPR.” Accessed April 3, 2017.
  2. “15 Curious Quack Remedies From the Age of Patent Medicine | Mental Floss.” Accessed April 3, 2017.
  3. “America’s Health Illiteracy: How Easy It Is to Buy into Health Myths | Alternet.” Accessed March 27, 2017.
  4. “Opioid Overdose | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center.” Accessed April 4, 2017.
  5. “Going After the Opioid Profiteers | By Sarah Anderson | Common Dreams.” Accessed April 4, 2017.
  6. “Proof That the Pharma Business Model Actually Wants People Sick | Alternet.” Accessed March 22, 2017.
  7. 35 FDA-Approved Prescription Drugs Later Pulled from the Market - Prescription Drug Ads -” Accessed April 3, 2017.
  8. “Food and Drug Administration - Wikipedia.” Accessed April 3, 2017.

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