Opium: Law and order

Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:29 pm

Before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, makers of patent medicines were not required to label the ingredients of their products. Treatments for babies’ colic, “women’s disorders,” and almost any imaginable ailment were marketed to users who had no way of knowing their ingredients or the proportions of opium, cocaine, alcohol, or other drugs in those medicines. At best, many of these concoctions were worthless as medical treatments; at worst, they were addictive and even deadly.
Responding to a growing recognition of the problems and implications of addiction during the late 1800s, the media and medical groups began to speak out about the dangers of many of these substances. The public became interested in what their medicine bottles contained. Before that time, if consumers of these medicines had known the ingredients in their medicines, few of them or their physicians would have understood the dangers of these drugs anyway.
A seemingly unrelated event also demonstrated the need for product labeling. In 1906, Sinclair Lewis published The Jungle, a book exposing the filthy meat handling practices in the Chicago meat packing industry. Among the atrocities he documented were rat and human remains being mixed in with the meat and rampant mislabeling of products. The public and politicians were justifiably outraged.
The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed later that year, ensuring that all adulterated or mislabeled food and drugs could not be transported across state lines. It required dangerous ingredients to be noted on drug labels, called for illegal foods and drugs to be seized, and created the agency that later became the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since patent medicines were included in this Act, it ultimately resulted in the demise of the patent medicine industry since the public and physicians could know and assess the ingredients in their medicines.

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