Another chapter from my book, 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know, published in 2003, by Disinfo.
Aspirin isn’t the only “wonder drug that works wonders” that Bayer made. The German pharmaceutical giant also introduced heroin to the world.
The company was looking for a cough suppressant that didn’t have problematic side effects, mainly addiction, like morphine and codeine. And if it could relieve pain better than morphine, that was a welcome bonus.
When one of Bayer’s chemists approached the head of the pharmacological lab with ASA — to be sold under the name “aspirin” — he was waved away. The boss was more interested in something else the chemists had cooked up — diacetylmorphine. (This narcotic had been created in 1874 by a British chemist, who had never done anything with it.)
Using the tradename “Heroin” — because early testers said it made them feel heroisch (heroic) — Bayer sold this popular drug by the truckload starting in 1898. Free samples were sent to thousands of doctors; studies appeared in medical journals. The Sunday Times of London noted: “By 1899, Bayer was producing about a ton of heroin a year, and exporting the drug to 23 countries,” including the US. Medicines containing smack were available over-the-counter at drug stores, just as aspirin is today. The American Medical Association gave heroin its stamp of approval in 1907.
But reports of addiction, which had already started appearing in 1899, turned into a torrent after several years. Bayer had wisely released aspirin the year after heroin, and this new non-addictive painkiller and anti-inflammatory was well on its way to becoming the most popular drug ever. In 1913, Bayer got out of the heroin business.
Not that the company has kept its nose clean since then:
A division of the pharmaceutical company Bayer sold millions of dollars of blood-clotting medicine for hemophiliacs — medicine that carried a high risk of transmitting AIDS — to Asia and Latin America in the mid-1980s while selling a new, safer product in the West, according to documents obtained by the New York Times. … [I]n Hong Kong and Taiwan alone, more than 100 hemophiliacs got HIV after using Cutter’s old medicine, according to records and interviews. Many have since died.
References: Askwith, Richard. “How Aspirin Turned Hero.” Sunday Times (London), 13 Sept 1998. • Bogdanich, Walt, and Eric Koli. “2 Paths of Bayer Drug in 80’s: Riskier Type Went Overseas.” New York Times, 22 May 2003. • Metzger, Th. The Birth of Heroin and the Demonization of the Dope Fiend . Loompanics Unlimited, 1998.