Heroin Used To Be Sold As A Children’s Cough Syrup

“A malady / Preys on my heart that med’cine cannot reach.” —Charles Maturin, “Bertram”

In A Nutshell

Anyone who has ever seen the television show The Wire has gotten a taste of how tragic heroin addiction can be from the safety of their own couch. Of course, there are people reading this who have gotten a much closer look, either from watching a friend fall under its power or perhaps by experiencing it themselves. The fallout from becoming a chronic heroin user is tragic and often horrifying, which makes it all the more amazing that not only was it originally conceived as a cough medicine, but it was marketed toward children. It wasn’t until 1924 that the FDA realized that maybe they shouldn’t be letting people ingest a powerful opiate to treat a minor cough.

The Whole Bushel

Heroin is one of the most dangerous, addictive drugs in the world. First synthesized in 1874, it is converted to morphine once it enters the body. Because of this, it was determined that it would be useful in treating pain and was then used as a medicinal treatment. Eventually, it was marketed as a cough medicine, meaning you could walk into a pharmacy and buy some heroin over the counter when you had a little tickle in your throat. But making this even more amazing is the fact that originally, the company that sold heroin as a cough syrup, Bayer, actually marketed it toward children. Yes, that’s right, one of the most powerful, dangerous narcotics in the world was used to treat what amounted to little more than the common cold in little kids around the world.

Bayer paid for advertisements in various places around the world that promoted heroin as a fine treatment for children who were suffering from sore throats, colds, coughs, and so forth, with the images depicting kids reaching for the bottle of heroin or being spoon-fed by their parents. “Sure,” you might say, “but they didn’t realize what it was yet.” Of course they didn’t, but astonishingly, this continued until 1912, well after people began to realize that maybe heroin wasn’t such a great treatment for adults, let alone children.

People finally started catching on to the fact that the use of heroin to treat coughs led to a gradual addiction, as many flocked to their local pharmacies to try to obtain more and more bottles of the stuff. Call us crazy, but we can’t imagine being a kid and clamoring for more of the nasty cough syrup our parents used to give us, which might have been a pretty big sign that something was amiss with that heroin stuff.

So after first being introduced in the late 1900s and showing signs of causing addiction around 1899, the United States government finally decided maybe it should be available by prescription only. Only they waited until 1914 to do so, meaning that there was a 15-year window in which you could easily get your hands on a bottle of smack in your local pharmacy.

Finally, in 1924 the FDA decided that making it a prescription only drug wasn’t enough, and it was banned altogether.

Show Me The Proof

CNN Travel: Heroin cough syrup and the museum of drug addiction
Yes, Bayer Promoted Heroin for Children

  • Lisa 39

    The new gateway drug, cough syrup!

  • Hadeskabir

    But I bet it worked damn well and children felt better instantly.

  • The Ou7law

    I figured out why i was always scratching my neck begging for more cough syrup now

  • Errkism

    Sounds like it works just as well as cigarettes for a sore throat.

  • Mezcal Turis

    And they still give codeine for coughs. Seems a bit strong for just coughs. Oh well, we always change what’s safe and not. Wonder what will be safe/not in the next years.

  • BlakeQuellette

    I think that it is bad for the children health.
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  • Have a sore bad sore throat, cough, etc. right now. Where is that medicine when you need it?

  • SelfieOlympics

    Am I the only one who finds that past generations who were fortunate enough to experience the early days of the camera looked scary? Some of them had no expression, everything felt so dark and moot in those pictures.

    Maybe this is why? I know a lot of drugs were sold as medicine in those days so perhaps them being depressed and sluggish were the results of unknown drug abuse/addiction. Babies were probably having withdrawals and parents mistook it for a cold and gave them more heroin.

  • C. Peludo

    Diacetylmorphine was actually first compounded in England in 1874 by Charles Wright. Bayer didn’t begin marketing it as Heroin until 1898. Heinrich Dreser, a chemist for Bayer was also responsible for the development of Aspirin, which he didn’t seem to think held much promise.

  • psufan69

    The John Wyeth version