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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Did You Know that Bayer Marketted & Sold Heroin?

While everyone reading this likely associates the name Bayer with aspirin, most people will be shocked to know that Bayer actually independently created, marketed, and sold heroin (as shown in the bottle above). That’s right…heroin, the highly addictive drug that is now illegal throughout the world. Below is the story of how this came to be and why it was stopped.

To take a step back, heroin was originally invented in 1874 by C.R. Alder Wright, an English chemist and physics researcher. When I say invented, that is because heroin does not occur naturally (unlike, say, marijuana) but needs to be synthesized. It is derived from combining morphine (a strong pain relieving substance) from the poppy plant with two acetyl groups (combinations of methane, carbon, and oxygen). This is why heroin is also known as diacetylmorphine. Wright was trying to a non-addictive alternative to morphine, which was frequently abused at the time and had undesirable side effects. 

In 1897, a chemist (Felix Hoffman) working at Bayer independently re-synthesized heroin under the supervision of his boss, Heinrich Dreser, who was the head of Bayer drug development. They were actually trying to produce codeine but heroin was the result. It was just as well, since the top codeine addiction rehab programs didn’t exist back then. Still, the end result that is heroin has proven to be just as potent. Dreser tried it on himself and staff and enjoyed the effects it produced. In developing a marketing campaign, Bayer realized that calling it diacetylmorphine was not going to work. They needed a marketing name (trade name) and decided to call it Heroin. That’s right, Bayer came up with the name Heroin. It was so named because it had heroic effects on the user.

Bayer decided to market heroin it as a morphine substitute (to cure addictions to morphine) and cough suppressant (as you can see on the ad above, click to enlarge) from 1898 to 1910. Cough suppressants were important back then due to the problems caused by tuberculosis and pneumonia. Free samples were sent to thousands of doctors and by 1899 Bayer produced a ton of heroin a year (literally) and exported it to 23 countries. Back in those days, heroin was widely accepted as a legitimate medicinal drug, forms of it were available in drug stores, and the American Medical Association approved it in 1906 or 1907.

Despite Bayer’s hopes, it turned out that heroin was highly addictive, up to 4 times stronger than morphine, and rapidly metabolized into morphine once it crossed the blood-brain barrier. Basically, in trying to create an alternative to morphine that was less addictive, they created a faster acting version or morphine that was more addicting and caused rapid onset euphoria. Ooops. There began to be a very high demand for heroin by patients even though they were not in respiratory distress. A new group of addicts was created and numerous hospitalizations resulted. It was a historic embarrassment for Bayer and they ceased production of heroin in 1913 and removed it from their official company history. In case you were curious, the U.S. banned the manufacturing, sale, and importation of heroin in 1924.

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