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


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Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

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