Snake oil

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Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis), which is used to treat joint pain. However, the most common usage of the phrase is as a derogatory term for quack medicine. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit.

Contents

History

Snake oil originally came from China, where it is called shéyóu (). There, it was used as a remedy for inflammation and pain in rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, and other similar conditions. Snake oil is still used as a pain reliever in China. Fats and oils from snakes are higher in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) than other sources. Snake oil is still sold in traditional Chinese pharmacy stores.

Snake fat also played a role in ancient Egyptian medicine, mixed with the fats of lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, tomcat, and Nubian ibex into a homogeneous mass believed to cause bald men to grow hair.[1]

Chinese labourers on railroad gangs involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad to link North America coast to coast gave snake oil to Europeans with joint pain. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, snake oil was claimed to bring relief. This claim was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, especially those selling patent medicines. In time, snake oil became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mis-characterized and mostly inert or ineffective, although the placebo effect might provide some relief for whatever the problem might have been.

Patented remedies originated in England, where a patent was granted to Richard Stoughton's Elixir in 1712.[2] Since there was no federal regulation in the USA concerning safety and effectiveness of drugs until the 1906 Food and Drugs Act[3] and various medicine salesmen or manufacturers seldom had enough skills in analytical chemistry to analyze the contents of snake oil, it became the archetype of hoax. American snake fats have EPA contents markedly lower than those of the Chinese water snake. Thus, the American snake oils were even less effective in relieving joint pain than the original Chinese snake oil, further promoting the hoax stereotype.[citation needed]

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