There’s a great post by Mary Sykes Wylie on AlterNet about America’s relationship with prescription drugs— yesterday’s miracle cure is today’s fast-track to addiction. She makes some good points about how marijuana is set to be the next substance to ride the roller coaster- up from reefer madness to nature’s answer to everything.
For perspective, here’s a look at drug marketing about a century ago. Surprising how little has changed.
You won’t find Veronal/Barbital at the CVS. That class of sedative hypnotic drugs is habit-forming and can kill you. It put a lot of people to sleep. Sulphonal is a controlled substance for the same reasons. Cinchophen is only used today by veterinarians. Diuretin, like it sounds, will make you pee. Urotropinwill make your pee clear. Remember that 1927 was before antibiotics, and people didn’t have too many alternatives to remedies that no sane person would try at home today. Guaiacol Carbonate is an industrial chemical, and as far as I can tell, a remedy of last resort for tuberculosis, which was then incurable. Humans have earned some resistance to TB over the centuries, back then you either got better or died. Today no one gets shipped to Zambarano, we have a pill for that.
And just as HIV today causes un-measurable suffering, Syphillis was a dread and incurable disease. Not fully understood, and the treatment was poisoning with iodine and mercury. Today the treatment is a whopping big shot of Penicillin– which really does cure.
If you read the fine print on these labels, you see that Lydia Pinkham started out claiming to cure prolapsed uterus. Pretty impressive that a bottle of alcohol and herbs could do that without surgery. But as I mention above, there were no antibiotics, surgery was much more risky. And probably not even available for poor women whose bodies were wrecked and whose homes were filled with too many mouths to feed. Something to ease the pain was all they had.
From advertising a sure cure for ailments of both sexes, Lydia Pinkham backtracks to ‘treatment’ for female weakness. Incidentally the label now lists the alcohol content, which they seem to have dialed back as the government got more active in regulating drugs.
What can we conclude from this? Not much changes. You still pay extra for advertising. Drug companies still sell drugs that will eventually turn out to be hazardous. Dubious cures will still be sold to the desperate.
A year after this book was published, Alexander Fleming invented Penicillin. Without which I might not be alive to type this cranky blog today. I’m a big believer in the right drug when its needed. But I’m not a true believer. There’s always a better way.
Pictures taken from the book, Chemistry in Medicine The Chemical Foundation Inc. USA 1928