In response to yesterday’s post on Houston’s botching of syrup possession cases, one of our loyal correspondents offered a nostalgic comment:
When I was a kid, over the counter codeine was legal. On Sunday visits, I used to slip into my grandmother’s medicine chest and for periodic sips out of her Vicks Formula 44 cough medicine bottle. I thought it was the taste I liked, but now I know it must have been more than that.
This got us wondering when Vicks excised the codeine from its celebrated cough syrup, and whether it was forced to do so under pressure. But as it turns out, Formula 44 never contained any opiate derivatives—in fact, that was the product’s chief selling point, as it was marketed under the none-too-catchy (and poorly punctauted) slogan “Effective as codeine—even better—because it is not narcotic.” (Check out a vintage ad from Ebony here.)
Vicks touted the primary ingredient as something called Silentium. But as far as we can tell, what made this stuff so lovely to quaff was the absurdly high amount of alcohol in each serving. Mixed into that liquor-y bath was also an ample dollop of phenylpropanolamine, which meant that vintage Formula 44 was essentially sweet Wild Turkey with a crystal meth chaser.
The alcohol got pared back after a while, but the phenylpropanolamine remained well into the modern era. And as it became more prominent on the ingredients list, some serious addiction issues arose. This 1992 case study (PDF) makes for a chilling read:
For 18 months a 25-year-old woman had consumed daily 800 mL of Vicks Formula 44-D (containing 12.5 mg of phenylpropanolamine, 15 mg of dextromethorphan and 100 mg of guaifenesin per 5 mL), the maximum recommended dosage being 10 mL four times daily. On presentation she was dishevelled and frightened, her speech was tangential and her affect labile, and she was deluded that she knew the whereabouts of a US hostage held in Lebanon and must rescue him. She was correctly oriented but had grossly impaired attention and concentration that precluded further cognitive testing…
Vicks Formula 44-D made her “high, hyper….[I] could go the whole day without sitting down … [but] would frequently lose up to 2 hours at a time.” She gradually became convinced that people were staring in through the windows and regularly locked herself in a closet when alone. She spent at least $15 000 in 1 year on Vicks Formula 44-D and later shoplifted it. She often vomited after taking the drug but would save the vomitus and swallow it later.
A sad tale all around, especially the conclusion—after successfully undergoing treatment, the woman relapsed and had to be committed to a mental hospital for “paranoid psychosis.” We are left to wonder what it is about this high that she found so appealing—what hole did this particular sort of buzz fill in her life?