Updated 28 June 2019

10 dodgy cough remedy ads from the olden days

It is amazing what doctors prescribed for people's cough in days gone by. From morphine to heroin, root beer and marijuana, we take a look at cough remedy ads that were dubious, at best.

Back in the day any quack could create a cough remedy and sell it to an unsuspecting public. There were no rules and regulations on what ingredients you could use, and there certainly wasn't an 'advertising standards authority'.

That meant that all manner of dubious ingredients where thrown together and sold as the ultimate cure for your cough.

For instance, did you know that Bayer Pharmaceuticals sold heroin as an over-the-counter remedy for coughs in the early 1900s?

By 1898, Bayer pharmaceutical found that, by boiling morphine for several hours, they could create diacetylmorphine, which they then called Heroin. It was said to cure bronchitis, tuberculosis and other cough-related diseases and in 1906 it was approved by the American Medical Association for general use and to replace morphine (which was until then the cough cure of choice).

The result: by 1914 there were 200 000 heroin addicts in New York City.

1. Here's the ad – Herion-based cough mixture (1900). Problem solved. 

Heroin wasn't the only ingredient in dubious cough and cold remedies. Here are a couple more gems:

2. The infamous One Night Cough Syrup that is nothing more than a lethal cocktail of drugs.  Manufactured in Baltimore in the US (1988).

3. A strange mixture of alcohol, cannabis and chloroform was said to cure colds and coughs by the Tancro Dug Company (1814). 

4a. Dr Veno's Lighting Cough Cure (1920) was hailed as a miracle cure, although the exact ingredients remain a mystery. Today it's sold as Beecham’s Veno’s Expectorant (see below).

4b. Modern-day Veno's cough cure (2015)

5. Dangerous advice: Dr Batty's asthma cigarettes (1890) not only 'cured' asthma, but a host of other diseases too. 

6. Ayers Cherry Pectoral (1891) - depending on which list of contents you reference, this cure for colds, coughs and “all diseases of the throat and lungs” contained either morphine or heroin.

7. Smoke to cure that cough! More bad advice, from Phillip Morris (1935)

8. Allcock's porous plaster for cough and back pain (1895). Transdermal patches started early. 

9. Charles E Hires' cough cure (ca 1870) was said to instantly dissolve and loosen the mucus. Made from fresh balsem, roots, herbs and bark.

10. Adamson's Botanic Cough Balsam, prepared from concentrated vegetable extracts, barks, gums and roots and "recommended for clergymen, eminent physicians and scientific men everywhere." (1984)

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Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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