Imagine peppy 19th and early 20th century ads for over-the-counter drug products containing cocaine and heroin, rewritten with today's medical knowledge. DrugAbuse.com, a resource for addiction treatment, did just that, updating 10 vintage ads for casual use of narcotics to include less blind enthusiasm and more science.
There are ads for cocaine drops, and cocaine tablets, and cocaine wine. Or maybe you'd prefer some "glyco-heroin" (peddled by an earlier iteration of GlaxoSmithKline), or some benzedrine sulfate—aka, speed. Most terrifying is probably Stickney & Poor's Paregoric, a potent mixture of alcohol and opium designed to quiet fussy babies. Dosage recommendations are five drops for a 5-day-old, eight for a 2-week-old, and 25 for a 5-year-old. (Adults can cut loose and have a full teaspoon.)
Other historical highlights include an early poster for Coca-Cola, signed by the soda's inventor, John Pemberton. Back in the late 1800s, the drink still included cocaine. The ad bills the product as "a cure for all nervous affections—sick headache, neuralgia, hysteria, melancholia, etc," while also assuring readers that "the peculiar flavor of Coca-Cola delights every palate." (Of course, Coke still cures nervous affections, as seen in the "Under Pressure" spot from the new "Taste the Feeling" campaign.)
The overall idea to rewrite the posters, meanwhile, is brilliant, even if the executions are uneven. One stronger example, for a cocaine toothache remedy, makes up for its lack of pithiness with an excellent use of an exclamation point—"Instantaneous Ingestion of Strong Central Nervous System Stimulant That Slowly Rewires Your Brains Reward System!"
Another standout offers a more informed perspective on Dr. Miles Nervine's liquid tonic, in which the active ingredient was bromide, a highly toxic compound made from saltwater. "Try Literally Any Other Method of Relaxation… If you have never used Dr. Miles Nervine, don't start now. If you have, dump your supply and find other ways to cope with life that aren't neurologically damaging."
Some of them miss their opportunity to drive home the emotional aspect of their message, opting instead for the kinds of dense rational arguments more likely to roll off a perpetually distracted audience. Take Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, another opiate marketed to mothers to calm their children. The updated version recasts it as "The mother's dangerous friend for depressing the respiratory systems of teething children." That may be technically accurate, but it's perhaps not effective as pointing out another, more pointed truth—"for killing teething children."
Then again, the goal is probably more to inform (and entertain) than to incite panic. And the site's most sobering argument comes in the postscript to its project—pointing out that even today, the line between pharmaceutical use and casual or recreational drug abuse is not as clear cut as it might seem at first glance.
"Despite some of the legitimate medicinal applications that many of these drugs had, none of them—with their potential for addiction and increasingly harmful health effects—should have been promoted casually to unsuspecting consumers," write the authors. "The marketing of a pharmaceutical heroin product for children, for one, seems shocking, but highlights an industry naive to the long-term consequences of these substances and their potential for abuse."
They add: "At this point in time, we should know better. Still, some of the same mistakes are being made. Prescriptions continue to be written for medicines—many in the same classes of drugs as the ones examined here—with seemingly overlooked regard for the potential downsides of taking them. Being a prescription drug doesn't necessarily imply safety. The phenomena of tolerance, painful withdrawal syndromes, chemical dependency, the development of compulsive drug seeking and drug using behavior all are part of a growing number of substance use disorder diagnoses—and, all are issues that we, as a nation, are impacted with with as we struggle to control a growing prescription drug abuse problem."
Or, to put it another way, every era has to reconcile with the nexus where its preferred flavor of narcotic behavior meets the human propensity for mercenary opportunism. Just look at the 1970s.