When Meth Was Medicine: Big Pharma Amphetamine Ads from the Days of Better Living Through Chemistry

Methamphetamine today is widely considered a scourge, its users portrayed as toothless trailer park trash and twitchy tweakers.  It's the stuff of meth labs and drug raids, but it wasn't always like that.

As shown in Nick Parsons' Meth Mania: A History of Methamphetamine (2014) and Nick Rasmussen's On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine (2009), amphetamines didn't begin as illegal drugs, but were championed as medicines that could cure what ailed Americans in mid-20th Century America. First marketed as nasal decongestants, pharmaceutical houses were quick to find other uses for the new wonder drugs, extolling their virtues for the treatment of obesity, anxiety, depression, among others.

Amphetamines as a class suppress appetite, increase alertness and stamina, and induce exhilaration, and, paradoxically enough, they calm down people suffering from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders. That's what meth does, and that's what Adderall does.

Methamphetamine was produced under the proprietary name Methedrine by Burroughs Wellcome and was one of the early amphetamine formulations.  Marketed as a dietary aid, it and  other amphetamines were advertised in journals aimed at prescribing doctors, some of which we reproduce below.

Today's drug scourge was yesterday's Big Pharma hard sell. And, as you will see at the bottom, today's favored amphetamine now gets the same treatment, while meth is the stuff of the crime pages. 

Amphetamine (amphetamine sulfate)

Hey, gals of 1940! Looking for a new way to stay slim? Drug companies were looking for markets beyond stuffy nose sufferers for their new wonder drug in the1930s, and by the time of this 1940 ad, they found one: "This magic powder does more than disperse unwanted fat, it purifies and enriches the blood, tones up the entire system and makes you feel better in health in every way," the ad copy entices. But wait, there's more! "It even gives you the energy to carry on working throughout the night."


Methedrine (methamphetamine)

The original methamphetamine.  The substance that many today disparage as the worst drug ever kept housewives slim in the 1950s and 1960s. Manufactured by Burroughs Welcome, it sold in the millions, but sold as an injectable liquid, it gave rise to a Bay Area speed shooting scene, followed by a state-level ban, followed in turn by the first illict meth labs--in California in 1962 and 1963!  And that "worst drug ever" is still available by prescription as Desoxyn, a Schedule II controlled substance manufactured by Abbot Laboratories. And it's still prescribed for obesity, as well as attention deficit disorder, although rarely, because of warnings about its side effects.


Benzedrine (dl-amphetamine)

The Benzedrine inhaler, introduced by Smith, Kline and French (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) in 1933, was the first prescription amphetamine, and was originally marketed to fight nasal congestion. But people, including guinea pig students at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s, soon discovered that the stuff made them pretty damned peppy, too.  So did US military doctors in World War II, who made it available to long-haul fighter and bomber crews, not to mention millions of GIs. The US military still supplies amphetamines to pilots on long-haul missions. In tablet form, "bennies" were gobbled down by the millions until they were tightly controlled at the end of the 1960s. In the ad below aimed at "high altitude flying personnel" in the military, SKF laughably peddles the drug as "for relief of nasal congestion," as if that's why they were being consumed.


Dexamyl (dextroamphetamine and amobarbitol)

Here's a nice little pharmaceutical speedball from the 1950s, aimed squarely at depressed and harried 1950s housewives. Another SKF product, Dexamyl was marketed as an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and diet drug, with the amphetamine providing the mood elevation and the barbiturate taking the stimulant edge off. Known as "purple hearts" (tablets) and "Christmas trees" (capsules), Dexamyl was also popular among British Mods. It went out of production in 1973, replaced by MAO inhibitors and tricyclic antidepressants.  This ad features a housewife who can apparently now vacuum like an octopus on speed.


And now, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Adderall (dextroamphetamine and levoamphetamine)

Different amphetamines go in and out of favor. While meth is demonized, Adderall is the latest amphetamine Godsend. It's now widely prescribed to kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Over 3.5 million children are currently on prescription stimulants, also including Ritalin (methylphenidate, closer related to amphetamines), a five-fold increase from 1990. Prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are now a $10 billion a year industry. 



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