The iconic image of the snake oil salesman, hawking his panaceas and elixirs, reminds us that the sale of unregulated medicinal products has been debated for more than a century. Interestingly, the origin of the term dates back to a decision rendered by the predecessor of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the Bureau of Chemistry—on Clark “the Rattlesnake King” Stanley in 1916. Through chemical analysis, the bureau found that Stanley’s snake oil, in fact, contained no snake oil at all but rather capsaicin, camphor, and turpentine. Hoping to make an example of him, federal prosecutors took Stanley to court for misbranding his product under the newly enacted Pure Food and Drug Act, ultimately fining him the lofty sum of $20.1 It is unclear what influence this had at the time, but 100 years later snake oil remains available as just one of a vast number of nutritional supplements marketed and sold without routine oversight.
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Incze M, Katz MH. Regulating the Dietary Supplement Industry: The Taming of the Slew. JAMA Intern Med. 2018;178(12):1723. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.5097
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