Snake oil salesmen lying to us accidentally paved the way for a safer world.
True
Seventh Generation

When someone is selling a product that doesn't do what they say, they're often called snake oil salesmen.

The phrase brings to mind the old Wild West with shouty men waving little bottles of magical medicines that promise everything short of immortality but do absolutely nothing.

But snake oil's real history — and its legacy — is much more interesting.


A vintage bottle of Eclectric Oil promising to heal what ails you. Image by iStock.

In the 1860s, thousands of Chinese immigrants had come to America to work on the transcontinental railroad. After a hard day of work, they'd treat their aches and pains with a fatty salve containing oil from Chinese water snakes.


A small slithery swimming snake. Image by iStock.

Modern researchers know that Chinese water snakes contain lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which help soothe inflammation and reduce blood pressure. But 200 years ago, the health effects of snake oil salve were unexplainable — and quickly became legendary.

Everyone wanted it. That's when the capitalism kicked in.

Salesmen who'd previously purchased the salve from Chinese laborers realized that they didn't need to actually put snake oil in their product — they just needed to say they did. Most people had never taken the time to squeeze the oil (or venom, in some cases) out of a snake themselves and wouldn't know the difference if it were replaced with, say, red pepper flakes. When the U.S. government seized a shipment of the best-selling Snake Oil Liniment and studied its contents, they found it contained no snake oil whatsoever — only mineral oil, turpentine, camphor, red pepper, and a tiny amount of beef tallow.

This cartoon snake knows that selling snake oil isn't a problem itself; misleading consumers is. GIF via "The Simpsons"/20th Century Fox.

By 1906, the government had had enough. President Teddy Roosevelt signed the original Food and Drugs Act into law, banning the sale of falsely labeled foods, drinks, and drugs.

It was intended to prevent the kind of shady and dangerous behavior that led to the sale of fake snake oil.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

The label on a bottle of Sulfanilamide. Image by the Food and Drug Administration, used with permission.

In 1937, S.E. Massengill Co. launched a new product called Elixir Sulfanilamide. It was marketed to parents with young children as the first liquid antibiotic — which it was, but with one deadly caveat. Instead of suspending the antibiotic in alcohol or water, S.E. Massengill used diethylene glycol, a toxic solvent. More than 100 people died before the drug was pulled from shelves, most of them small children.

Afterward, the company admitted it had only tested Elixir Sulphanilamide for taste, smell, and appearance — never safety — because it wasn't legally required. It was "snake oil" all over again, but with horrifying deadly — and preventable — consequences.

This disaster prompted the government to massively expand its authority and pass 1938’s Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, giving it broad power to regulate the safety, marketing, and sale of food products, drugs, and cosmetics.

The FDA is by no means a perfect agency, but it has proved its value. In 1962, its rigorous testing procedures — led by bureaucratic superhero Frances Oldham Kelsey — prevented the sale of thalidomide in the United States. Advertised as a sleeping pill and targeted at expectant mothers, this drug caused more than 10,000 fetal deaths worldwide, but only a reported 17 in America.

Decades later, the FDA is keeping up with its work to protect Americans from harmful consumer goods with dangerous ingredients or false health claims.

Labeling requirements are a huge part of that.

Every company looking to sell new food products, cosmetic and cleaning products, or drugs must provide detailed information to consumers. While the rules differ between product groups, in general, most goods sold in the United States should show the following on their labels:

  1. The full product name, along with a detailed list of ingredients, including active and inactive ingredients.
  2. Instructions on how to safely store the product, whether it is a hazardous chemical, and how to dispose of it safely.
  3. Products containing chemicals proven to be irritants or hazardous need to display a detailed list of possible health risks, along with emergency treatment recommendations.
  4. The company should provide a phone number or website for consumers who want more information.

But disclosing information doesn't end there. There are also plenty of resources online to help consumers make smart choices about the cleaners, cosmetics, food, and pharmaceuticals they buy.

Image by iStock.

For people who want to know even more, there are mobile phone apps like OpenLabel, the Environmental Working Group, and Consumer Reports with detailed product information. Some companies are even considering smart labels, where a scan from a mobile phone can provide consumers with all kinds of extra information. It's all designed to help us know more than we ever thought we'd need to know about the products we buy.

More than 100 years later, we know that real snake oil is perfectly healthy. But what it represents — individuals and companies putting financial gain ahead of consumer safety and health — is still very dangerous.

He may be adorable, but this hissy little huckster may not have your best interest at heart.

Tough, thorough rules on what needs to go on product labels are just one way governments can hold companies accountable. They've made product labels informative, necessary, and, most of the time, totally boring. Exactly as safety should be.

True

Anne Hebert, a marketing writer living in Austin, TX, jokes that her closest friends think that her hobby is "low-key harassment for social good". She authors a website devoted entirely to People Doing Good Things. She's hosted a yearly canned food drive with up to 150 people stopping by to donate, resulting in hundreds of pounds of donations to take to the food bank for the past decade.

"I try to share info in a positive way that gives people hope and makes them aware of solutions or things they can do to try to make the world a little better," she said.

For now, she's encouraging people through a barrage of persistent, informative, and entertaining emails with one goal in mind: getting people to VOTE. The thing about emailing people and talking about politics, according to Hebert, is to catch their attention—which is how lice got involved.

"When my kids were in elementary school, I was class parent for a year, which meant I had to send the emails to the other parents. As I've learned over the years, a good intro will trick your audience into reading the rest of the email. In fact, another parent told me that my emails always stood out, especially the one that started: 'We need volunteers for the Valentine's Party...oh, and LICE.'"

Hebert isn't working with a specific organization. She is simply trying to motivate others to find ways to plug in to help get out the vote.

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

Keep Reading Show less

When it comes to the topic of race, we all have questions. And sometimes, it honestly can be embarrassing to ask perfectly well-intentioned questions lest someone accuse you of being ignorant, or worse, racist, for simply admitting you don't know the answer.

America has a complicated history with race. For as long as we've been a country, our culture, politics and commerce have been structured in a way to deny our nation's past crimes, minimize the structural and systemic racism that still exists and make the entire discussion one that most people would rather simply not have.

For example, have you ever wondered what's really behind the term Black Pride? Is it an uplifting phrase for the Black community or a divisive term? Most people instinctively put the term "White Pride" in a negative context. Is there such a thing as non-racist, racial pride for white people? And while we're at it, what about Asian people, Native Americans, and so on?

Yes, a lot of people raise these questions with bad intent. But if you've ever genuinely wanted an answer, either for yourself or so that you best know how to handle the question when talking to someone with racist views, writer/director Michael McWhorter put together a short, simple and irrefutable video clip explaining why "White Pride" isn't a real thing, why "Black Pride" is and all the little details in between.


Keep Reading Show less
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

Keep Reading Show less

The subject of late-term abortions has been brought up repeatedly during this election season, with President Trump making the outrageous claim that Democrats are in favor of executing babies.

This message grossly misrepresents what late-term abortion actually is, as well as what pro-choice advocates are actually "in favor of." No one is in favor of someone having a specific medical procedure—that would require being involved in someone's individual medical care—but rather they are in favor of keeping the government out of decisions about specific medical procedures.

Pete Buttigieg, who has become a media surrogate for the Biden campaign—and quite an effective one at that—addressed this issue in a Fox News town hall when he was on the campaign trail himself. When Chris Wallace asked him directly about late-term abortions, Buttigieg answered Wallace's questions is the best way possible.

"Do you believe, at any point in pregnancy, whether it's at six weeks or eight weeks or 24 weeks or whenever, that there should be any limit on a woman's right to have an abortion?" Wallace asked.

Keep Reading Show less

As the once-celebrated Information Age devolves into the hell-hole-ish Misinformation Age, many of us feel a desperate sense of despair. It's one thing to have diverse perspectives on issues; it's entirely another to have millions of people living in an alternate reality where up is down, left is right, and a global pandemic is a global hoax put on by a powerful cabal of Satanic, baby-eating, pedophile elites.

Watching a not-insignificant portion of your country fall prey to false—and sometimes flat out bonkers—narratives is disconcerting. Watching politicians and spokespeople spout those narratives on national television is downright terrifying.

Clearly, the U.S. is not the only country with politicians who pander to conspiracy theorists for their own gain, but not every country lets them get away with it. In a now-viral interview, New Zealand's Tova O'Brien spoke with one her country's fringe political party leaders and showed journalists exactly how to handle a misinformation peddler.

Her guest was Jami-Lee Ross, leader of the Advance New Zealand party, which failed to garner enough votes in the country's general election this weekend to enter parliament. The party, which got less than one percent of the vote, had spread misinformation about the coronavirus on social media, and Ross's co-leader, Billy Te Kahika, is a known conspiracy theorist.

But O'Brien came prepared to shut down that nonsense.

Keep Reading Show less