Spam, history, and growing a bigger penis

If you periodically clean your spam folder and wonder why you are getting so many penis enlargement emails, come-ons for miracle diet products, and offers for drugs from “Canadian pharmacies” you are asking the wrong question. The real question is, why is there so little advertising for bogus and dangerous products?  The short answer is that both the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration regulate drug promotion and labeling.

Before all this big government regulation there were plenty of ineffective and even deadly products widely available, like Nyal’s Compound Extract of Damiana,   a “non-irritating sexual tonic” that was “useful as an aphrodisiac and for the restoration of virility.”  Damiana was 50 per cent alcohol and contained 15 grains of Coca which, it promised, “exalts intellectual faculties.” Wow, a drug that promised to treat erectile dysfunction, packed the punch of bourbon, and aided the brain—that sounds like more fun than the modern day claims for memory enhancing supplements sold over-the-counter.  Too bad it didn’t work. In 1910 the US Department of Agriculture labeled Damiana as misbranded under the Food and Drug Act of 1906 for having false and misleading statements.  The company pleaded no contest to the charge and paid a $5 fine.


Other health seekers turned to products that sound a lot less fun than Damiana and they continue to do so. This may be hard to believe but the 19th century practice of swallowing sanitized tapeworm cysts in order to lose weight persists.  And the myths about how to get rid of the tapeworm once the ideal weight has been reached are just that, myths. (No you can’t lure the tapeworm out of your body with milk and cookies).

The desire to lose weight quickly and easily—no restrictions on diet, no exercise regimen, no self-control required—is one reason there are so many supplements on the market today that promise to melt your fat, erase your hunger, or simply magic.  And you might be thinking, if they are on the market, then they are safe.  Nope.  The Food and Drug Administration regulates products intended to prevent and treat disease, but it has very little ability to regulate supplements (which, you may notice from the label, carefully disclaim any such direct intention) thanks to the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994. Supplements, unlike pharmaceuticals, are considered safe until proven otherwise. And a lot of people think they are safe, and valuable. In 2011, the supplement industry took in $30 billion.

Did folks really get $30 billion dollars worth of fat burned, muscles built, weight lost, libido heightened, and energy gained? Did any of them check the FDA website to see the health fraud warnings?

The elixirs of today, like those of centuries past, make a lot of promises.

Buyer beware.

Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women.

Read more about The Public's Health.