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Snake oil history from century old elixirs to fake stem cells

I remember seeing a cowboy-type TV show when I was a little kid where a guy pulled into town not slinging guns but selling snake oil.

He stood right up on his wagon and started pitching the wonders of what he was selling. He had some buyers pretty quick. Eventually, someone like a sheriff or town elder told him to get going. Even as a kid watching TV, I just assumed that he’d move along to the next town. At least he got the boot from one town.

Maybe seeing this on TV had a long-lasting impact on me?

Old and new snake oil

Stem-Cell-Black-Market
Stem cell snake oil.

In some ways, certain sellers of unproven stem cells today remind me of the snake oil sellers of the old days.

While some bottles of such elixirs in the late 1800s actually had real snake oil in them (for whatever that was worth, which was nothing; see this helpful piece from NPR including the story of Clark Stanley), others were likely just water mixed with alcohol or other random ingredients.

Maybe herbs and spices?

Today’s “stem cell” products also often do not contain living stem cells.

They may not have much at all to do with stem cells either.

In other cases dead extracts of stem cells might be in the mix, but the marketing strongly implies living stem cells are in there.

We’re also seeing more sales of stem cell creams supposedly made from plant stem cells.

How plant stem cells, assuming there are any in the creams, could help us humans remains a mystery.

See my new overview of stem cell creams here.

Then there are generally useless stem cell supplements.

We’re even seeing snake oil remedies for COVID-19 too.

stem cell snake oil new york times
Snake oil mentioned in New York Times 99 years ago. Now we have stem cell snake oil. What’s next?

The first mention of snake oil in the New York Times

I was curious about the history of snake oil.

So I looked in the NY Times archive for the first mention of it. What I found was a short news item from just about 100 years ago. A guy pitching it made a scene by pouring some on a boy’s head and setting it on fire. You can see a screenshot of this article above on the left.

I guess anything for publicity?

What’s even more striking is the follow-up article on the right that says the punishment for this egregious act was a $50 fine. Yes, $50 was a lot more money 99 years ago. But I’d think that both selling snake oil and setting a kid on fire would warrant a strong reaction from authorities. I guess he did spend the night in jail.

Many stem cell potions, few “sheriffs” doing anything

Unfortunately, now in 2021, authorities are having trouble coming up with proportionate reactions to stem cell snake oil too.

While the FDA has been doing much more in this area in recent years, it sometimes feels like a drop in the bucket. With perhaps 1,000 stem cell clinics in the US selling unproven stem cells and some fraction of those at the bottom of the barrel selling phony elixirs in a sense, shouldn’t authorities do more? Do they want to do more but cannot find a way? Do they not have enough resources?

Some stem cell clinics are selling offerings that could in theory be helpful but just aren’t proven. Some of these are also compliant with FDA rules. In this article, I’m mostly talking about the other end of the spectrum. For instance, a clinic or supplier selling a dead amniotic “stem cell” extract as some kind of miracle panacea. Another place selling unproven injections into autistic kids. All to make money off of vulnerable people.

There also seems to be more of a role for the FTC related to fraudulent marketing here in the US. However, the FTC hasn’t done enough either.

Looking ahead

I wish there was more to be done about these kinds of modern-day stem cell snake oil.

I bet if someone started marketing “snake stem cell” supplements or cream, it would probably sell. And the FDA and FTC would be slow to respond.

Is there going to be CRISPR snake oil? I think it’s likely.

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