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Bayer & Heroin

As part of their marketing campaign, the Bayer Company promoted heroin as a safe alternative to morphine. Morphine had been prescribed as an effective painkiller, though negative side effects were known. 

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Heroin was first sold to the public as a cough medicine in 1898 by Bayer & Company. Marketed as a safe and effective cough treatment, many people consumed the substance, unaware of its addictive nature. 

Nearly as soon as it was prescribed as a cough treatment, people started developing an addiction to it.

Heroin as a Cough Medicine 

In approximately 1895, German chemist Felix Hoffman initially synthesized heroin in his lab at Bayer, where he was an employee, explains the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

By 1898, Bayer commercially sold heroin as a pain reliever and cough suppressant. Consumers were told that the new drug was both safe and effective.

As the addictive effects of morphine were already recognized, Bayer seized the opportunity to sell heroin as a safer and more effective alternative.

A Wonder Drug

Heroin was touted by many medical professionals and Bayer as a wonder drug. It effectively treated common respiratory diseases, like tuberculosis. 

Doctors began prescribing heroin for treatment of diseases that were previously treated by codeine and morphine. It was highly effective, and its addictive nature was still unrecognized. Some physicians at the time claimed heroin was 10 times as effective as morphine at treating respiratory diseases, while creating a fraction of the negative side effects that morphine produced.

While heroin was an effective treatment against coughs and respiratory infections, it was not safe, as it proved highly addictive. Relatively quickly, patients taking the drug, as prescribed by their doctor, required higher doses and became dependent on the substance. 

By the early 1900s, professionals began warning against the potential for tolerance and addiction to the drug, though it still took many years for its addictive nature to be fully recognized. 

Recreational Heroin Use 

Within a short time of being introduced to the medical market, heroin began being abused as a recreational drug. The rapid euphoric effects of the drug made it both desirable and highly addictive. Even individuals who had been prescribed heroin by their doctors quickly developed a tolerance to and dependence on the drug.

In an effort to curb both legal and illegal heroin use, the Heroin Act was established in 1924. The manufacturing, importation, and possession of heroin became illegal in the United States, including for medicinal purposes. Pharmaceutical production of heroin in the United States essentially ceased after 1924. 

Illicit heroin traffic, however, continued to rise. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, heroin trafficking in the U.S. peaked by the end of the 1920s. 

A steep decline in heroin trafficking was observed in the early 1930s in part due to increased international restrictions. What remained available in the market was typically mixed with other substances and no longer pure heroin, making the substance that much more dangerous. 

Addiction to Heroin 

Addiction to heroin is a significant risk that has contributed greatly to the opioid abuse epidemic across the United States. Since the early 1900s, heroin has been used recreationally. 

Heroin use rates among the general population are relatively low, though the numbers have been increasing since 2007. As it was when it was first introduced by Bayer, heroin remains a highly effective, readily available, and somewhat affordable alternative to prescription painkillers. Many people get hooked on prescription painkillers, like Vicodin or OxyContin, and then eventually transition to heroin use.

Today, heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug, with no accepted medical use and a recognized high potential for abuse. Doctors no longer prescribe heroin, but it is still in circulation via illicit drug manufacturing and selling. 

Risks of Heroin Use

As an unregulated substance, the true strength and ingredients of what is bought and sold as heroin are unknown. Users put themselves at high risk for experiencing serious negative consequences, including these:

  • Drowsiness
  • Respiratory depression
  • Dependence
  • Addiction 
  • Overdose 
  • Coma
  • Death 

Heroin is highly addictive due to the nearly instant euphoric physical and mental effects it produces. What began as a wonder treatment for pain and serious respiratory infections quickly evolved into an illicit drug of choice. 

Before medical professionals accurately identified the highly addictive potential of heroin in the early 1900s, its recreational use had reached the general population. It has remained a public health concern ever since. 

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated October 16, 2023
  1. References A History of Opiate Laws in the United States. (September 2016). The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment.
  2. Drug Scheduling. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
  3. Heroin Bottle. (2021). DEA Museum.
  4. Drug Fact Sheet Heroin. (April 2020). Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration.
  5. Heroin Research Report. (June 2018). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  6. History of Heroin. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
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