The story of snake oil is a cautionary story for us today. In the 19th century, thousands of Chinese immigrants came to this country in search of a better life.
Many of them were rural farmers hired to help build the transcontinental railroad system. These immigrants brought their land medicines with them.
Among them was the oil of the Chinese water snake, the black-banded sea krait, which has been used for centuries to treat arthritis, bursitis and other joint pain. This oil was rich in omega-3 fatty acids and has now been shown to be an effective anti-inflammatory agent.
Given the tough, brutal work on the railroad, these workers shared this traditional drug with their colleagues and the healing powers of this snake oil became known.
In order never to miss a business opportunity, the flamboyant Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King, stormed in and turned snake oil into a magical native remedy. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he cut up a live rattlesnake in front of the audience and boiled it in water to convince hundreds to buy his vials of this hideous patent medicine.
Clark announced that his snake oil could cure almost anything, including chronic pain, headaches, “female ailments” and kidney problems.
The problem was that Clark’s “magic cure” consisted of nothing more than mineral oil, beef fat, and turpentine. And not a drop of snake oil.
But it spurred the widespread growth of the patent medicine salesman and traveling medicine show, which on the positive side hosted many musicians from the Appalachians and started the careers of some of the greats like Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.
While the history of snake oil is interesting, it also points to the blurry lines between “science” and Hucksterism, which unfortunately has always been a part of our history.
For example, Americans have been told for decades that high-fat foods cause cancer, heart disease, obesity, and more. Scientists have been warning against consuming fat since the 1940s, and by the 1960s, the low-fat diet was touted not just for high-risk heart patients but for the nation as a whole.
After 1980, the low-fat diet became an overarching ideology promoted by doctors, the federal government, the food industry, and the popular health media. The only problem was that there was no evidence that a low-fat diet was actually healthy.
In fact, scientific studies over the past 20 years have shown that a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet has led to a rapid rise in obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Low fat was not a science but an ideology. Ideology that has successfully turned the snack food business into a billion-dollar industry.
In the case of pharmaceutical companies, “science” is even more confusing. In a recent decision, the FDA approved an Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm, in an unprecedented expedited approval route that its own scientific advisors to the agency almost unanimously said were not effective.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Unfortunately, violations of scientific integrity in the drug approval process are an ongoing issue for the FDA. It is a cross-administrative issue. “
In a survey of senior scientists and FDA officials, UCS found that “61 percent of respondents were aware of cases where the Department of Health or FDA policy officers” interfered inappropriately with FDA regulations or actions. “
As a result, some of the largest civil damages claims in history have been brought against pharmaceutical companies for lying about the safety and effectiveness of their products.
For example, GlaxoSmithKline was forced to pay $ 3 billion in damages and fines for fraudulent marketing, kickbacks, and failure to report security information.
Pfizer paid $ 2.3 billion in a plea for false drug advertising and bribes to lawful doctors. Pfizer pleaded guilty to incorrectly branding the pain reliever Bextra by promoting the drug for uses for which it was not approved.
Johnson and Johnson were forced to pay criminal fines and civil damages totaling over $ 2 billion for mistakenly marketing their schizophrenia drugs, and has recently settled $ 5 billion in claims for their involvement the opioid epidemic that overdosed hundreds of thousands of Americans and deaths.
In addition, billions of dollars were deducted for sales of talcum powder that the company knew contained asbestos.
Distinguishing fact from fiction is not an easy task, especially since a lot of money goes into advertising drugs and diet programs and the watchdogs that “protect” us, revolving doors to the very industries they oversee.
When our health is concerned, we need to be vigilant and not let snake oil vendors convince us of the success of their “cures” when in reality it is just another profitable system.
I believe in science. It’s the snakes in the guise of science that I worry about.
David Weintraub is a cultural activist who can be reached through his website SaveCulture.org