Meet the New Snake Oil, Same as the Old Snake Oil

April 9, 2015 9:48 PM

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During the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, government investigators performed laboratory tests of Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment -- a potion supposedly made of rattlesnake oil that offered "immediate relief" for rheumatism, sciatica, sprains, lumbago, deafness, and other ailments. The tests found that the liquid contained not the advertised reptile juice, but rather mineral oil, red pepper, turpentine, and other ingredients. The government sued Mr. Stanley, winning a $20 judgment, and "snake oil" became shorthand for any false or fraudulent cure.

No longer the exclusive province of carnival barkers and traveling salesmen, the snake oil of today is made by countless companies and sold at GNC, Target, Walgreens, Walmart, and thousands of other retailers on and off the Web. I'm referring to dietary supplements, products such as echinacea, ginse...

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