100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Pure Food And Drug Act Amended

Patent medicine are medical compounds sold under a variety of names. Very few were ever patented though many were trademarked. They were unregulated until recently and made various health claims that were questionable. Patent medicine advertising often talked up exotic ingredients such as snake oil and the term “snake oil salesman” meant a charlatan or fake. They often contain a strong amount of alcohol (who doesn’t feel better after a swig of “medicine”?)

In 1906 in COLLIER’S Weekly Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote an 11-part series “The Great American Fraud,” analyzing the contents of popular patent medicines. Adams pointed out that the companies producing these medicines were making false claims about their products and some were health hazards. This article had a powerful impact and led to the first Pure Food and Drug Act. But the wording in the 1906 act pertained only to false statements as to the identity of the drug in the medicine and not to false statements or claims as to the curative or therapeutic qualities stated by the advertiser. In 1910 the Bureau of Chemistry attempted to prosecute the promoter of “Dr. Johnson’s Mild Combination Treatment for Cancer.” The Supreme Court ruled that the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act did not prohibit false “therapeutic” claims on drug labels – only false statements about drug composition. Congress responded with the Sherley Amendments which made it a crime to label drugs with false and fraudulent claims of therapeutic effectiveness.

On August 23, 1912  the Pure Food and Drug Act was amended to prohibit false and fraudulent claims of health benefits. Unfortunately it required proof of fraudulent intent which made it difficult to enforce effectively.

“Dr. Johnson’s Mild Combination Treatment for Cancer”

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