Apr 08 2013

What Was in Patent Medicines

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7 Responses to “What Was in Patent Medicines”

  1. Ryan Gon 08 Apr 2013 at 9:37 am

    Another delightful blog post Dr Novella, I really enjoyed reading this. On a side note, this article is a poignant reminder of the times I would wonder over to crazed, conspiracy mongering ideologues’ websites such as Alex Jones. Their stores would always contain a plethora of pseudo-medicine that the government doesn’t want you to know about/take, because if everybody took them there would be no disease! etc…
    But scrolling on down to the bottom I’d always notice this lovely disclaimer I doubt they enjoy having:
    “The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated these statements. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

    It beautifully highlights how even though on the surface these people claim to despise all governing authorities and large corporations because they are corrupt, they are still jumping on the supplement bandwagon and selling this rubbish at super inflated prices.

    Pharmaceutical companies are bad, very bad, so come over to our shop and buy our supplements for hundreds of dollars!

  2. DavidCTon 08 Apr 2013 at 10:52 am

    I can’t help but wonder about the age of the couple in the “Wizard Oil” and what a couple of similar age would look like today. There would be a difference and it would most certainly not be due to improvements in Snake oil.

    A trip to any “Health” or “Natural” foods store and an increasing number of pharmacies, will show that snake oil is very much alive and well. With the loss of heroin and cocaine, more effective marketing is required to get people to use this stuff. With the promotion of the useless by the media, there is enough confirmation bias to make anything “work”. As for the alcohol, the cost benefit ratio is far better at my local Pub.

  3. ccbowerson 08 Apr 2013 at 2:02 pm

    The first thing I noticed about that Hamlin’s wizard oil advertisement is how creepy the couple look, and that is the feeling I get from advertising from that time period. Today, the couple would be horseback riding or at the very least lying in bed with perfectly done hair and makeup. I thought that products like wizard oil were primarily for topical use, although that image appears to imply that it is being taken orally. I’m sure that it works equally well for all indications regardless of route of administration.

  4. HHCon 08 Apr 2013 at 5:29 pm

    In the late 1880′s and early 1900′s, Hamlin’s Wizard Oil was a cure for hydrophobia resulting from the rabies virus. Anti-viral drugs were developed later for cures.

  5. Richard Olsonon 09 Apr 2013 at 7:36 am

    Dr Novella and most readers of this post probably know this, but I always find it interesting that the majority of people using the ‘snake oil’ category for useless pseudoscientific products or methods do not know its origins. Snake oil was a traditional Chinese remedy for pain and inflammation brought over by laborers doing railroad construction. Dr. Richard Kunin had it analyzed in 1989 where it was found to contain about 20% EPA an omega-3 oil along with several other fatty acids that have shown efficacy for many conditions in double blind studies. The Chinese water snake water having the higher omega-3 levels than the rattlesnake oil in the picture. Yes, there is always some conflicting data, but most studies show positive effects. I wonder if it was overlooked because Dr. Kunin is more of an ‘alternative’ MD and Orthomolecular doctor….so the real ‘snake oil’ story is ignored by the mainstream. But, facts are facts. The New England Journal of Medicine was unwilling to publish it, but the Western Journal of Medicine did. You could almost say that nowadays you need a doctor’s prescription for ‘snake oil’ if your doctor prescribes Lovaza. a prescription ‘fish oil’ marketed by GSK that is mostly omega-3 EPA, the main ‘active ingredient’ in snake oil. There is over $1 Billion in annual sales in the US. Would it be more accurate to say that over a Billion Dollars a year of Lovaza ‘snake oil’ is sold, but you need a prescription? There are pharmaceutical grade OTC fish oils with the same or stronger potency than Lovaza that are a sixth of the price. So, could you say the supplement world sells pharmaceutical grade ‘snake oil’ for less? Scientific American, Nov 1, 2007 article “Snake oil salesmen were onto something” has a good summary. I was back at my Pharmacy School last week and it still had the same old glass display cases filled with ‘snake oil’ remedies that were there 37 years ago.

  6. ccbowerson 09 Apr 2013 at 9:22 am

    “Yes, there is always some conflicting data, but most studies show positive effects.”

    ‘Most studies’ of what exactly? The data are pretty weak for any indication even if speaking of omega three fatty acids broadly, and clinical data is nonexistent for the specifics you are talking about with regards to snake oil and pain and inflammation from something like railroad work. You mention Lovaza specifically, and even it has only 1 approved indication: as adjunct to diet for people with high triglycerides, and that isn’t for lack of trying. There have been many studies looking at other indications, such primary prevention of cardiovascular events, heart failure, etc, and they are collectively negative for those indications. I’m not even going to get into extrapolating such data to something like a non-standardized snake oil, but there are obvious problems with doing so.

    You also allude to some type of conspiracy against certain practitioners for the NEJM not publishing a particular study in their journal, instead of the more obvious answer: most studies (the vast majority) are rejected from good journals, and bad journals accept most papers (and there is the spectrum in between). So there are no conclusions that can be drawn from a given study being rejected by a particular journal just as we can’t conclude anything from a given applicant being rejected from admission to a particular school.

  7. embeeteeon 13 Apr 2013 at 1:11 am

    That’s a pretty sketch story for SciAm; I’m disappointed. It reads like it should be in Discover, or maybe Popular Science…

    Traditionally, snake oil was applied externally, rubbed onto the skin. Even if we’re to accept the efficacy of Omega 3′s straight as read – and that’s a big “if” – to link anecdotes about oil used on the skin to studies that review the effect of feeding animal subjects diets that were high in Omega 3…

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