Snake oil in the New York Times

June 21, 2011 • 8:03 am

by Greg Mayer

Perhaps just by coincidence, today’s New York Times features two articles concerning snake oil: one about an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art of posters promoting dubious remedies, and the other about the relationship between Senator Snake Oil, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and the “nutritional supplement” industry.

William H. Helfand Collection/Philadelphia Museum of Art

The exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art features a selection of striking and colorful posters from the William H. Helfand Collection that advertise a variety of patent medicines and mostly questionable nostrums (a number of them are shown on the Times and Museum websites). Sen. Hatch is infamous as the primary sponsor of the “Snake Oil Salesman’s Relief Act of 1994”, which exempted “nutritional supplements” from the requirements of safety and efficacy of the pure food and drug laws. As the Times‘ story details, he has been well remunerated by the industry for his continuing support. Supplement manufacturers are not supposed to claim that supplements cure disease, but they try to skate the line (and sometimes cross over it, as shown in the article) by making vague claims of improving function or energy, and adding very small print disclaimers that say the FDA has not checked any of their claims. Orac at Respectful Insolence follows the supplement industry’s shenanigans fairly regularly.

36 thoughts on “Snake oil in the New York Times

  1. Has anyone ever estimated snakes per capita by state? It’d be interesting to see how close to the top Utah comes.

  2. The double-standard of So-Called Alternative Medicine advocates is well-known. They demand the highest level of scrutiny, regulation, and accountability for the pharmaceutical industry, but then give a free pass to anyone who sells a dubious remedy which claims to be outside the mainstream, spiritual, holistic, natural, or whatever. They’re buying not just a health product, they’re buying a vision of themselves.

  3. Various vitamin supplements should not be lumped into the “snake oil” category. For those who take supplements actual benefits, whether real or placebo, are realized. For the dubious, like “bile beans” and magnetic bracelets and the like, I could see the FDA stepping in.

    1. Except that the vast majority of vitamins are not needed and provide no benefit other than to the wallets of the vitamin industry fat-cats.

      1. Please provide the scientific analysis from which that statement is derived. Granted, there are many that do not provide additional benefits when taken in larger doses, and some that are no more than snake oil, however… there is vitamin C, there are numerous b vitamins, such as b12, there are needed minerals such as iodine, which is in our salt. If I see research on specific vitamins I seek out additional sources. Sometimes I add them to my diet, sometimes I do not. A good multivitamin mineral supplement is usually enough. This of course precludes any conditions one might have that require additional amounts of certain supplements.

  4. Drenn, I disagree. Vitamins have been shown to have a wildly varying amount of minerals and vitamins…some having much less than stated, some…and more dangerously (as with Vitamin A) much more than stated.
    The supplement manufacturers….their days are numbered, and I can’t wait. I watched a close friend spend tens of thousands of dollars on “miracle” supplements as she was dying of leukemia. Yeah…she was misinformed and it was her responsibility to be informed…but she was just hoping to have more time with her family. The people selling her their $80/bottle mangosteen juice or $700/mo in miracle herbs couldn’t care less about her or the rest of their clients.

    1. $80/bottle mangosteen juice

      What the fuck?

      The mangosteen is a lovely fruit, one of my absolute favorites. Look for it in your closest oriental market or other source of exotic produce.

      It’s a bit on the pricy side, but not outrageously so…probably between 50¢ and a dollar per fruit, but you only get about as much edible stuff per fruit as in a half-dozen grapes.

      Paying $80 / bottle for mangosteen juice would be about as insane as paying $80 / gallon for grape juice. If I’m paying that much for mangosteen juice, it better come not just with an umbrella and be served by a smiling college kid at her summer waitressing job in a far-away exotic resort, but the whole day’s room and board in said resort as well.

      And I simply can’t imagine any herbs (outside of those only available on the black market) worth anywhere near $700 / month. All that stuff you can grow for yourself for at absolute most a few hundred dollars initial capital investment — and that’s assuming that you pay somebody to build and / or install the planters, irrigation system, and the rest. Once all that’s in place, the only costs are tap water, maybe some fertilizer, and a little bit of your time.

      Damn. It’s a shame I have a conscience, or else It’d be painfully clear I’m in the worng business.



      1. You know…you’re wasn’t $80/bottle…my apologies…it was $80 for 4 bottles in a box. The rest was supplements in the forms of varying vitamins and herbs from her chiropractor…I know what she spent because I did her personal and business books…as well as her discussing it with me. I tried to warn her, but she didn’t care – to her it was worth a shot. I’m just glad I talked her out of the $2500 “frequency stabilizing machine”.

    2. Did the supplements hasten her death. Did they provide hope?
      What really gets me riled is that many of those that are on the bandwagon to get supplements under FDA control, or outright banned are the same people who advocate that those drugs that are illegal now should be made legal.
      Why on Earth would anyone want the government to step in and wholesale take over supplements? On the other hand I can see interference if a supplement proves to be harmful or worse.

      1. Hope? Sure, since these companies can allude to all sorts of unsubstantiated claims while providing little to none of the actual ingredient. I’m sure they didn’t hasten her death, but does that make it ok to bilk desperate people with claims of curing her cancer or “oxygenating” her blood? I want these companies to be responsible for providing accurate quantities from quality sources. Call me a liberal, whatever…I don’t think requiring documented quality control is out of line considering the millions upon millions of people that consume these supplements.

        1. Essentially they are selling ‘hope’ then, which is a sterile emotion in that it relies on faith not evidence.

      2. The FDA should be in the business of regulating supplements at least to the extent that they’re in the business of regulating food — quality inspections, labeling requirements, and so forth.

        Seeing how the supplement industry has had such a nasty history of gouging and snake-oil salesmanship, I’d also wholeheartedly support something that, for example, forbade any sort of health-related claims being made (even suggestions) unless those claims have met the same standards as FDA-approved medicines.

        If you want to sell over-priced mangosteen juice, go for it. If you want to sell over-priced mangosteen juice and hint that it’ll help reduce your tumors (or even help you get to sleep), no way in hell unless you’ve got the solid research data to support your claims.

        Regardless, your over-priced mangosteen juice should be subject to the same quality oversight as regular-priced grape juice, and should have the same labeling requirements (ingredients, nutritional value, etc.) as regular-priced grape juice.

        And, once you do start making medicinal claims (because you’ve go the research to back it up), your over-priced mangosteen juice should be subject to the even more rigorous quality and labeling standards associated with other medicines.

        Right now, supplements are in a never-never land somewhere between food and drugs. That’s not good. They should be treated as the one or the other.



      3. You’re forgetting another question – did they cost her money? If so, did she get health benefits in return? (Hope doesn’t count – you can get that for free).

      4. Why does that get you riled? Those are two separate issues.

        I think marijuana should be legal. I think I should be able to grow it and sell it. But it has mind-altering effects, so the government should regulate. And if I sell it while claiming it can treat a certain illness, then I would hope the government would require me to support those claims.

        1. For the most part taking supplements wisely causes no harm. Drugs like marijuana do cause harm, that’s why they are illegal. No, I won’t argue the point, drugs like marijuana cause more harm than alcohol. Do the research.
          I take the claims of supplements with a grain of salt, I check the safety record, then see if it lives up to what I have read about it. Having experienced benefits from some supplements I can speak only from that experience. I do wish the government would take a long walk and stay out of people’s lives.

          1. You have that backwards, alcohol causes more harm than marijuana by any measure.

            If supplements aren’t harmful, then the FDA can’t restrict their sale – and they have no intention of doing so.

            If they have health benefits, then their manufacturers can prove it by doing proper studies.

            If they refuse to do those studies, then they shouldn’t be able to claim health benefits.

            Do you really think people selling a product should be able to say whatever they want about a product, with no regulation?

            If so, I have some prime development property in Florida for sale.

          2. Alcohol use has been more widespread than Marijuana use. You have only seen the tip of the ice berg where marijuana is concerned. I have friends who have told me of their impaired memory as well as many episodes where people have left and still, a half hour later, they are waving goodbye.
            Maintaining a grip on reality is hard enough without all this crap floating around in your body.
            As far as supplements… as long as they are safe, leave them alone. Keep the message clear that the FDA has not validated any health claims, then if you find benefits yourself, use them. Regulation means higher prices. If the FDA wants to test these things to make sure they contain what they say they do, fine, but don’t add the cost to my bill.

          3. These sort of anecdotes are worthless. Please point the way towards scientific research that shows Marijuana as more dangerous than alcohol

          4. Goodness, have I touched a nerve? I never said that Marijuana was harmless, I merely implied I thought that your statement that it is more dangerous than alcohol was wrong. I still think that and your reference to the Daily Mail is not going to change that! How about the Lancet?

          5. A Wikipedia reference? Again, alcohol has been around a long time, no, it isn’t harmless in great quantities. My opinion is that alcohol should be indulged in at home, and anyone caught driving with ever so much as a hint in their bloodstream should lose their license for life. This means no bars and any home parties should be sleepovers.

            Marijuana, in it’s present high potency form has not been around very long. Is what you are saying is that another harmful drug should be added to societies already heavy burden?

          6. First of all the chart in Wikipedia was from a paper published in the Lancet.

            No I’m not suggesting that another harmful drug should be ‘added to society’s already heavy burden’. (after all the US has already tried doing that!)

            I’m suggesting that the evidence is that Alcohol is both more addictive and more harmful than Marijuana, no more, no less.

          7. I would say that the addictive nature of both depends on the individual, and that it’s a shame that humans seem to have a need for mind altering substances. So many people have difficulty facing reality. Drugs, alcohol being a drug also, are so available by legal and illegal means. Providing a means to escape boredom and depression has become a big business.

  5. Hatch is motivated in part by the rather significant herbal supplement industry in a small state like Utah. The FDA needed to step in when some folks were speeding their brains out on Ephedra, or stressing their liver with too-large doses of other herbal supplements. I know so many Utahns who eagerly swallow herbal supplements and pharmaceuticals but would never touch a cup of coffee!

    1. I can see why Ephedra would be under FDA control. I could accept it too if they put Yohimbe under FDA control. The crap works but you’re a living wreck for two days.

  6. Ephedra works, but can be deadly. The old ma huang trucker pills killed a few folks and are largely banned, though imitations with bitter orange are available across the US. Ephedra is one of those traditional Chinese medicines that really does something and Ephedra derived drugs are used today to treat asthma and other conditions.

    But yeah, if you make a health claim, you should have at least something backing it up. I take vitamins, one or two children’s Zippy Zoo Kroger brand vitamins with extra C. I work weird schedules, and sometimes have a limited diet. Kid’s vitamins are a great way to balance things out. All Zippy Zoos claim is that if you’re not getting enough from your diet, Zippy Zoos will top you off. That’s a modest, scientifically verified, claim.

    1. Back when it was legal, I used to drink ephedra tea for asthma and nasal congestion. It worked better than Sudafed – probably because drinking hot liquid is known to reduce asthma symptoms.

  7. My great-grandmother took one of these pills (IIRC) every day of her life, they were laxatives and she swore by them. As I have inherited her IBS I can understand her need and sympathise. There is much snake oil in the world but these little pills actually performed a useful service.

    OT, I read a book about an African explorer who was advised by a senior explorer to take plenty of laxatives with him on his trip because the natives would all want them and it was a good way to make friends.

    1. I take psylium fiber every day, at the suggestion of two different doctors. But the manufacturers don’t claim any health benefits for it other than the ones that are already known and have been demonstrated scientifically.

  8. Many family lines are predisposed to longevity due to genetics. My wife’s family usually live into their 80’s. Her mother however exceeded this and lived to the age of 96. For all the time I knew here she always took numerous supplements. Not only did she live to be 96, but was fully capable of taking care of herself and lived alone until the end. This is despite her sedentary lifestyle and despite her being overweight.

      1. None. All I have is a woman, now deceased, who never had a debilitating ailment in 96 years of life, who also took supplements religiously. Strong as a horse till the day she finally had used up her body.

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