There are a lot of factoids floating around on the Internet. Some of them are outright lies. Others are simple facts that have been misinterpreted and blown out of proportion so that they might as well be lies.
One of these supposed “facts” is that Listerine invented bad breath to sell more mouthwash. Although it’s true that Listerine invented a name for the condition and ran a very successful marketing campaign on it, bad breath has been known for a long time, and it’s a serious medical condition.
Medicine before Marketing
People who want to attack the medical establishment will look for any excuse to tell us that many of the conditions we supposedly suffer from are fabrications by doctors, big pharma, or even dentists to try to get people to buy more medicine and services.
The true part of this story is that in 1921, the term “halitosis” was coined by George Lambert, the son of Listerine founder Jordan Wheat Lambert. He took the Latin word for breath, “halitus” and combined it with the medical ending “osis” to get a medical-sounding term for bad breath. Then he ran a marketing campaign for Listerine based on bad breath that skyrocketed the popularity of the remedy.
But Listerine was already an established remedy long before this, and bad breath was a recognized condition even before Listerine was invented.
Listerine was developed and marketed as a prescription antiseptic in the 1880s. Although intended as an all-purpose antiseptic, it mostly proved its value for injuries to the mouth, and it was widely used for this purpose. In fact, it was so popular that in 1914, it was allowed to move from the prescription medicine side of the store to the over-the-counter side.
What the bad breath marketing campaign did was establish Listerine as a household name and as the most effective treatment for an already-recognized condition.
Bad Breath Is a Serious Condition
Listerine definitely banked some serious coin off of its marketing campaign, but that doesn’t mean it invented bad breath. Instead, people have been looking for solutions for bad breath for about 3500 years. In the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus dating from before 1500 BC there’s a recipe for eliminating bad breath. Greek and Roman doctors also describe recipes for treating the condition.
And lest you think this is just a product of Western medicine, note that Chinese emperors would ask guests to chew cloves before an audience.
But what’s more important than how long we’ve been combatting this condition is how potentially serious it is. Bad breath can be related to a short-term situation, but it’s often related to more long-term conditions, often a bacterial infection such as gum disease or an abscessed tooth that requires a root canal.
Although people may respond to advertising for frivolous reasons, that doesn’t change the fact that bad breath is a longstanding and serious condition.