An Introduction to the History of Quack Medicine
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a remarkable growth in the marketing of sham products to treat and cure disease.
In 1962, after a series of highly publicized public health crises, legislation was passed to close this ‘space between’ created by scientific uncertainty by switching the burden of proof for safety and effectiveness from the FDA and onto product manufacturers.At that time, the rate at which quack medicines were being introduced into the market far outpaced the development of the science necessary to establish the efficacy and identify the risks associated with each new product. This scientific lag time created a period when there was an information void that
predatory commercial interests were quick to use to their advantage. As the FDA carried the burden of proof to show that a product did not work or was unsafe in order to remove the product from the market, during this lag time predatory commercial interests were able to profit from scientific uncertainty to the detriment of public health.
During this long period in U.S. history, the curative claims of the predatory sham medicine salesmen were limited only by the gullibility of their targets. In many cases, the degree of gullibility was proportional to the level of desperation of the individual for a cure. The more dire the condition, the more vulnerable an individual was to the ‘flim flam’ of the greedy snake oil salesman. And the more dire the condition, the greater the degree of harm when the sham medicine did not work, causing injury over and above the original illness and/or causing a delay in seeking effective medical treatment. Thus, this lag time between initial marketing of a sham product and the development of the science necessary to resolve uncertainties over the new product’s safety and effectiveness was very costly in terms of human suffering and loss of life. Slaying the Hydra: The History of Quack Medicines
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