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Snake Oil: Slipping Through
Healthcare Cracks

snake oil

Snake Oil.

The phrase rouses visions of roadside hucksters selling magic in a bottle. Yet, snake oil first emerged on the American landscape as a real cure for what ailed Transcontinental Railroad workers.

Thousands of Chinese came to the U.S. in the 1800s to work on the railroad. Many brought along traditional Chinese medicines, one of which was snake oil. Chinese snake oil, made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, was rich in omega-3 acids. The lotion was effective in soothing inflamed joints.

Soon, some enterprising Americans fabricated new concoctions of snake oil. Some substituted rattle snake oil for the Chinese water snake oil. Since it was not effective, before long, the "snake oil salesmen" decided that any oil would do. It didn't. By the end of the 19th century, 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, folks used opium for everything from calming teething babies to soothing old war injuries.
  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 marketed as a brain tonic. Cocaine tablets were a popular remedy for sore throat and headache.
  4. Dr Pepper was also sold as a brain tonic.
  5. Suppliers sold both arsenic and strychnine over the counter. They dispensed arsenic for illnesses that ranged from leukemia and malaria to acne. They peddled strychnine as an aphrodisiac.

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

Medical contraptions and concoctions infect our airways. Many are available over the counter, but some are available only prescribed by medical professionals.

Overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. Opioid deaths are reaching epidemic proportions. The CDC reports that overdose deaths involving opioids have quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, opioid deaths in the United States hit a record-breaking 33,000.(4)

The use of psychiatric drugs in the elderly has become epidemic. Studies link them to the deaths and as an under-reported cause of falls in those afflicted with dementia (6).

The Teamsters' Union has targeted the three largest U.S. opioid drug wholesalers—McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen—for flooding the nation with these addictive pills. Teamsters are also using their clout as pension fund investors. They demand that drug wholesalers take responsibility for their lack of oversight, conduct full investigations of their distribution practices, and hold their CEOs accountable.(5)

Drug Recalls

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

  1. 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. Over 2,110 deaths, reported between 1981 and 1999 spurred the recall.
  2. DES (Diethylstibestrol) synthetic estrogen originally approved to prevent miscarriage, premature labor, and other pregnancy complications. Although studies in the 1950s showed the drug was ineffective, it remained on the market from 1940 until 1971. It caused cancer of the cervix and vagina. It also caused birth defects and other developmental abnormalities in children.
  3. Raptiva (Efalizumab) was on the market for 6 years from 2003 to 2009. Developed to treat psoriasis, it caused PML (progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy) a rare and usually fatal disease that causes damage to the brain.
  4. Developed to be a pain reliever, instead Vioxx (Rofecoxib) 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 recall, it was prescribed to more than 20 million people.(7)

Why are these recalls happening? The FDA is tasked with being the consumer watchdog for safety in American foods and drugs. Medications are supposed to be well tested and studied to be effective before being released to the market. Instead the agency allows big pharma to make the American public it's test subjects. Intstead, the watchdog has become big pharma's lap dog.


  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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