Monday, June 13, 2011

Ask your doctor about…

Back in 1949 or 1950, as a 14-year-old or thereabouts, I spent a lot of time in my room at night listening on my little Silvertone Midget radio to country and gospel music on WCKY out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The commercials, as I recall, were mostly for chewing tobacco, baby chicks, and a bottled medicine called Hadacol, guaranteed to cure your every ill.

Wikipedia has this to say: "Hadacol was a patent medicine marketed as a vitamin supplement. Its principal attraction, however, was that it contained 12 percent alcohol (listed on the tonic bottle's label as a 'preservative'), which made it quite popular in the dry counties of the southern United States. It was the product of four-term Louisiana state Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc (1894–1971), a Democrat from Abbeville in Vermilion Parish. He was not a medical doctor, nor a registered pharmacist, but had a strong talent for self-promotion. Time magazine once described him as 'a stem-winding salesman who knows every razzle-dazzle switch in the pitchman's trade'."

Hadacol comes to mind because I have just finished reading Pope Brock's rollicking Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, the story of "Doctor" John R. Brinkley, who in the 1920s and 1930s was the country's most successful purveyor of quack cures, most famously transplanting goat testicles into men who were willing to pay big for restored vigor. Brinkley also harnessed the new technology of radio to his enterprise, setting up a super-powerful transmitter just across the border in Mexico and blasting out country music and snake oil come-ons to suckers across the nation.

It's a hair-raising story of the human capacity for self-delusion, only modestly tamped down when Roosevelt signed into law beefed-up powers for the Food and Drug Administration in 1938.

Of course, we are still in the thrall of the flim-flam artists, the hawkers of homeopathic remedies, dietary supplements, and, perhaps most egregiously, a wide array of powerful drugs that are FDA approved and might actually work.

Modern drugs can be life-saving. The pharmaceutical industry has made invaluable contributions to public health. I take several of their products myself. But, lordy, when it come to selling their wares on television they far outshine the Brinkleys and LeBlancs of the past. Hard selling of prescription drugs directly to the public should, in this patient's humble opinion, be illegal, as is the case in every other country except New Zealand. It would lower the price of useful drugs, lessen their unnecessary prescription, and make health care more affordable for all.

Not likely to happen, however. The "don't-let-the-government-tell-me-what-to-do" spirit of Doctor Brinkley is fixed deep in the American soul.