From the FDA Vault: Ironed Out


Today’s doctors, drugs, and medical devices
truly work medical miracles for young and old alike, but there are some as phony as
a three dollar bill. Today’s episode -Ironed Out-
Most Americans today understand that proper levels of iron are essential to human health
and that a shortfall can lead to dangerous consequences. But we also know that mislabeled products
or products that promise false cures can be just as harmful, a lesson underscored by a
tale from FDA’s History Vault, involving one unscrupulous businessman who sought to profit
by promoting phony cures using iron tablets. Early in the 20th century, many Americans
believed that decreased energy was associated with blood loss or weakness so to treat this,
they often took what were called, “blood builders” which contained stimulants, to “pep them up.” One popular treatment was a small pill of
Nuxated Iron, which contained iron and nux vomica, a derivative of the strychnine tree
that is highly toxic to humans and other animals. The pill was promoted as a cure for a broad
range of conditions, including fatigue, malnutrition, nervousness, and “lack of blood,” as well
as things like pallid complexion and a loss of sexual vitality. Sales of the pill skyrocketed, a success due
largely to the ingenious and often deceptive marketing tactics of its proprietor, a relentless
charlatan named E. Virgil Neal, whose history included a profitable cosmetic company, a
conviction for mail fraud, and a stint as a hypnotist with the name Dr. Xenophon LaMotte
Sage. After World War I, Neal saw the opportunity
for exploiting the burgeoning health care field of vitamins and minerals. But the public had little understanding of
this emergent field, and, as a result, were easy prey for Neal”s marketing tactics and
phony claims of the therapeutic value of his product as well as the insistence that it
was on the cutting edge of science. Neal flooded newspapers with product advertisements
promising to alleviate “that tired feeling.” Women were told that Nuxated Iron would help
them regain their youthful complexion, as well as their husbands’ affectionate gaze. Paid celebrity testimonials from prominent
athletes touted Nuxated Iron’s invigorating and strength-building qualities. But Neal’s claims began to face greater scrutiny. Especially after The Journal of the American
Medical Association reported the case of a young boy dying of strychnine poisoning after
consuming nearly an entire bottle of Nuxated Iron. Even as Neal’s quackery was being exposed,
the FDA was unable to prosecute him because the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act only prohibited
mislabeled ingredients and intentionally untruthful therapeutic claims. And Nuxated Iron actually contained negligible
quantities of the claimed ingredients. Following the passage of the 1938 Food Drug
and Cosmetic Act, the government was finally able to take action against Neal for misbranding. Under the revised law, the government was
no longer required to provide proof of intent to defraud when products made false or fraudulent
health claims. Today, FDA continues to play a critical role
in protecting consumers from fraudulent, adulterated, and misbranded products like Nuxated Iron. We hope you have enjoyed your visit to the
vault.

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