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Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicament utilizing fat extracted from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis). It is a rubefacient and/or ointment, and is applied topically to relieve minor physical pain. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many centuries, and is a relatively common medication prescribed by doctors ascribing the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. Its effectiveness as medicine has been a historical source of controversy in the Western world, where there is much confusion over its origin and constitution due to a U.S. District Court judgment against Clark Stanley.
In Western culture, snake oil is most commonly associated with a placebo, panacea and/or deceptive marketing. Its association in Western culture lies in the fact that many 19th-century United States and 18th-century European entrepreneurs advertised and sold mineral oil (often mixed with various active and inactive household herbs, spices, and compounds, but containing no properties of snakes,) as "snake oil liniment", making frivolous claims about its efficacy as a panacea. Patent medicines that claimed to be a cure-all panacea were extremely common from the 18th until the 20th century, particularly among vendors masking addictive drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol and opium-based concoctions and/or elixirs, to be sold as medication and/or products promoting health at medicine shows.
The use of snake oil long predates the 18th and 19th centuries in China and the Eastern world, where oil made from fat extracted from the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) is a traditional liniment used for treating joint pain. Chinese water-snake oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which has strong analgetic and anti-inflammatory properties.
The marketing concept for snake oil was likely transferred to the US from trade, immigration, and exposure to 18th-century British culture. However, the actual source of its use as a folk remedy was likely introduced, similarly to its introduction in the UK, by Chinese laborers involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad in the US, and were undoubtedly familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine, using snake oil to treat joint pain such as arthritis and bursitis, while introducing it to fellow American workers. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by 19th-century rival medicine salespeople, who competed with snake oil entrepreneurs in peddling other medicines for pain, often offering more hazardous alternatives such as alcohol and/or opium.
Patent medicines originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's elixir in 1712. There were no federal regulations in the United States concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act. Thus, the widespread marketing and availability of dubiously advertised patent medicines without known properties or origin persisted in the US for a much greater number of years than in Europe.
In 18th-century Europe, especially in the UK, viper oil had been commonly recommended for many afflictions, including the ones for which oil from the rattlesnake (pit viper,) a type of viper native to America, was subsequently favored to treat rheumatism and skin diseases. Though there are accounts of oil obtained from the fat of various vipers in the Western world, the claims of its effectiveness as a medicine have never been thoroughly examined, and its efficacy is unknown. It is also likely that much of the snake oil sold by Western entrepreneurs was illegitimate, and did not contain ingredients derived from any kind of snake. Snake oil in the United Kingdom and United States probably contained modified mineral oil.
In popular culture within the United States, snake oil is particularly renowned to be a commodity peddled at American Old West-themed medicine shows, although the judgment condemning snake oil as medicine took place in Rhode Island, and involved snake oil manufactured in Massachusetts. The snake oil peddler is a stock character in Western movies, depicted as a traveling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling fake medicines with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a shill) will often attest to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" will leave town before his customers realize they have been cheated. This practice has wide-ranging implications, and is known as a confidence trick, a type of fraud. This particular confidence trick is purported to have been a common mechanism utilized by peddlers in order to sell various counterfeit and generic medications at medicine shows.
The drastic amount of fraud extending to the drug epidemic was unfolded, and exposed with a judgment against Clark Stanley, which condemned the patented Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment in US District Court. This minor ruling, much like the process that unfolded in the UK during the previous century, set a precedent for government bureaucracies to exert greater authority over traditional practices in health and medicine. Snake oil has grown to epitomize patent medicine, and represents a healthy act of scapegoating that allowed for government controlled bureaucracy to effectively seize authority over the means to control a drug epidemic involving alcohol and opium during the 19th century in the US. This increased authority led to the evolution and expansion of bureaucracies such as the Food and Drug Administration in the US.
From cure-all to quackery
The composition of snake oil medicines varies markedly among products.
Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment – produced by Clark Stanley, the "Rattlesnake King" – was tested by the United States government's Bureau of Chemistry, the precursor to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA,) in 1916. It was found to contain:
Although most snake oil in the Western world was drastically overpriced and falsely advertised it is arguable whether or not it is actually representative of a placebo given that Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment, the only Western produced snake oil known to have been examined, is similar in composition to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments or chest rubs. None of the oil content was found to have been extracted from actual snakes. Nonetheless, the composition of most snake oil is essentially the same as Vicks VapoRub, which contains camphor. Snake oil, and many chest rubs, utilize camphor as an active ingredient. Clark Stanley, the most renowned peddler of snake oil who is popularly known as "The Rattlesnake King," marketed a brand of snake oil containing capsaicin as an active ingredient in addition to camphor. Capsaicin also continues to be commonly used in many non-narcotic pain patches, and is found in many competing brands of chest rubs as well as in pepper spray. A critique of the historical revision giving rise to such a negative connotation for snake oil may argue that its place in English is the product of a cultural dissociation adopted from popular culture.
In 1916, subsequent to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment was examined by the Bureau of Chemistry, and found to be drastically overpriced and of limited value. As a result, Stanley faced federal prosecution for peddling mineral oil in a fraudulent manner as snake oil. In his 1916 civil hearing instigated by federal prosecutors in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, Stanley plead no contest to the allegations against him, giving no admission of guilt. His plea of nolo contendere was accepted, and as a result, Stanley was fined $20.00. This amount of money corresponds to roughly $457 in 2018. The term snake oil has since been established in popular culture as a reference to any worthless concoction sold as medicine, and has been extended to describe a widely ranging degree of fraudulent goods, services, ideas, and activities such as worthless rhetoric in politics. By further extension, a snake oil salesman is commonly used in English to describe a quack, huckster, or charlatan. It is also used in a de facto manner to describe the general nature of many modern professions such as a politician or religious leader, most especially Islamic Imams and Christian ministers. It is also commonly used in a quackery sense to describe many present day physicians and doctors associated with medical malpractice, such as an internist, as well as many attorneys filing frivolous lawsuits, and is often used as a broad term to describe anyone in the profession of sales, most commonly car salespeople and pharmaceutical sales representatives.
Fraudulent marketing techniques employed by Western businesspersons producing snake oil are not dissimilar from most advertising campaigns employed in accordance with entrepreneurial business practices today. Such deception is prevalent in storefronts, among retail stores, as well as among peddlers who sell a wide array of products, and is particularly common in services marketing. Examples of modern products alleged to be marketed similarly to snake oil are products of herbalism, dietary supplements, or a Tibetan singing bowl (used for healing.) Common indictments of false advertising for these, and other products marketed similarly to snake oil often materialize in allegations of dubious advertising claims that these products are scientific, healthy, or natural.
Quite unlike snake oil in traditional Chinese medicine, there are quasi-justifiable means to codify snake oil in Western culture as a fraudulent panacea given that there are no known accounts of snake oil peddled in the United States or Europe containing any trace of actual snake extract. Thus, it is generally assumed that any variety of snake oil is in line with most other patent medicine available in the 18th and 19th centuries, although it is generally noted that snake oil is less dangerous than many other patent medicines containing intoxicating, or hazardous ingredients. Nonetheless, snake oil represents a concept for a particular type of fraud that may be extended to many of the same intoxicating drugs once sold at medicine shows that remain widely prescribed and available today. Most of these drugs are now manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, or fall under government control in some form or fashion.
- Beecham's Pills
- Daffy's Elixir
- Dalby's Carminitive
- (Lydia) Pinkham's Vegetable Compound
- Nine oils
- patent medicine
- Turlington's Balsam
- Alves, Rômulo; Rosa, Ierecê Lucena (2012-09-19). Animals in Traditional Folk Medicine: Implications for Conservation. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9783642290251.
- Graber, C (2007-11-01). "Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something". Scientific American. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
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- "The Long Struggle for the Law". Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
- Klauber, Laurence M. (1997). Rattlesnakes, vol II. University of California Press. p. 1050.
- Chemistry, United States Bureau of (1917). Service and Regulatory Announcements. U.S. Government Printing Office.
- "$20 in 1916 → 2018 | Inflation Calculator". www.in2013dollars.com. Retrieved 2018-04-07.
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