Not Enough Tar in Your Lungs? Blame the FDA!

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:,_New_York,_United_States,_1880-1893_Wellcome_L0058539.jpg

In light of the recent whooping cough case at Swarthmore College, it seems reasonable to examine some of the ways people have dealt with coughs – including whooping cough – in the past, and what is preventing us from doing so now. 

One coughing “cure-all” came in the form of Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizer, a device that heated the Cresolene into a vapor over a small kerosene lamp that came with the purchase. Children were instructed to breathe in its vapor, promising weary parents an end to the disease in only a few days. Miraculously, this quick and “perfectly safe” cure (according to advertisements) also came to the aid of those with asthma, scarlet fever, catarrh (mucus buildup), and more! 

But what precisely was inside the formula? Those who took it certainly did not know – at least in the twenty-or-so years before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, or the Wiley Act was enacted. As it turns out, the proprietary blend of Cresolene was a delightful by-product of coal tar. (Note: tar was a common ingredient in several cough cures, as it was also featured within the 1908 “Compendium of Everyday Wants” as one ingredient of a gin-honey-balsam fir concoction. Then again, tar is also present in cigarettes, and those wouldn’t be seen as unhealthy for another sixty years!)

Even after the Wiley Act was passed, requiring all active ingredients to appear on drug labels, Vapo-Cresolene remained in the markets and homes despite the near poisonings and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reporting its uselessness. Yet, the product only stopped being sold in the 1950s, with pill and electric-lamp versions being sold in the meantime. But how was this possible?

The issue was that the Wiley Act contained numerous loopholes that companies happily exploited. For instance, by removing its claims from their labels and transferring them to advertisements instead. Indeed, although the difficult-to-prove intention to defraud became illegal, knowingly selling harmful substances crossed no lines, provided instructions on how to safely use it were located … somewhere. Medicines containing radium (which the FDA was aware was dangerous) abounded, but because the Wiley Act did not regulate the safety of cosmetics or medications, “cures” like Radithor were free to cure impotence by killing the drinker instead. The FDA repeatedly warned the public of its dangers but could do no more than that, leading to jaw-dropping symptoms of necrosis, meningitis and beyond. 

In an attempt to further educate the public and muster support for a more stringent law, FDA employees Ruth deForest Lamb and George Larrick created a traveling exhibit dubbed the “American Chamber of Horrors.” In the exhibit were nearly 100 useless and/or dangerous products – all of which the FDA was incapable of banning from the market, including Vapo-Cresolene. Tanlac, another treatment for catarrh (and constipation) was also on display due to its advertising and fake testimonials on the benefits of its 36-proof mix of wine, glycerin (a natural alcohol) and herbs (lower proof Jägermeister, anyone?).

After the exhibit returned to Washington, D.C., Lamb wrote a book on the matter, also named “American Chamber of Horrors,” explaining the limitations of the Wiley Act and the changes she felt were needed. The book was a success and Lamb, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, helped drum up support from women’s groups. Eventually in 1938, after a large-scale drug poisoning in 1937, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed. This gave the FDA authority over food, drugs, medical devices and cosmetic safety, patching up many of the gaps the Wiley Act had contained.

Alas, now all the fun medications are monitored and instead we must receive the whooping cough vaccine, which managed to temporarily eradicate the disease in 2000! After we’re done criticizing life-saving vaccines, we should complain to the FDA about the lack of tar in our treatments … it would help our health just as much! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go inhale some Cresolene.

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