Terra Sigillata

“There’s no credible evidence that what’s in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment,” said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt, who reviewed Airborne’s claims. “Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.”

One really needn’t go any further than this money quote from yesterday’s press release out of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

With continuing investigations from the Federal Trade Commission and 24 State Attorneys General, the walls are crumbling down on the makers of well-marketed scam that is Airborne cold remedy. In yesterday’s announcement, a $23.3 million settlement was reached in a class-action suit by California plaintiffs (joined by CSPI) with the makers of the supplement, “whose labels and ads falsely claimed that the product cures and prevents colds.” (Wilson v. Airborne Health Inc., settlement PDF, 776MB)

As of the time of this posting, there is no mention of this action anywhere on the Airborne website and business proceeds as usual.

Concocted by second-grade teacher Victoria Knight McDowell and her screenwriter husband Thomas Rider McDowell, Airborne promised to “boost your immune system to help your body combat germs” and instructed users to “take it at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded, potentially germ-infested environments.” The company’s folksy “created by a school teacher!” slogan and insistence that the product be stocked with real cold, cough, and flu medicines instead of with dietary supplements, helped turn the company into an overnight success, as did an appearance by Victoria Knight McDowell on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

CSPI then notes that a 2006 ABC News Good Morning America exposé on Airborne’s sole “clinical trial conducted without any doctors or scientists, [was] just a “two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study.” It would not surprise most readers to learn that my blogging colleague Orac (Respectful Insolence) was on top of this story even before we both joined the ScienceBlogs.com consortium (Orac pre-Sb, Orac Sb).

CSPI reports that the plaintiff began action the very following month:

Soon after the plaintiff notified Airborne of his intent to file suit in March 2006, the company stopped mentioning the study and began toning down the overt cold-curing claims in favor of vague “immunity boosting” language. Next, in 2007, the Federal Trade Commission and a group of state attorneys general began investigating the various “cold busting” claims that Airborne has made since its launch in 1999. Those investigations are continuing, since the packages’ cartoony germs and suggestion for use in “school, playgrounds, airplanes” and other crowded spots still imply that Airborne is aimed at the common cold.

ABC News has a nice followup here to their original 2006 story. Consumers who purchased Airborne products as a result of false advertising can seek refunds at the Airborne class-action settlement site, http://www.airbornehealthsettlement.com/. Under conditions of the settlement, the company will be required to post advertisements in magazines and newspapers with information on how consumers can obtain product refunds.

To be honest, this $23.3 million is really a drop in the bucket. In 2007, Airborne sales of their now expanded product line were reported at $300 million by CSPI (pg. 3 of their Nutrition Action Newsletter, PDF) and a proprietary industry report suggests they were on track for $1 billion in sales.

Let’s be clear on the reason for the charges, the settlement, and the continued investigation of the company and its product:

1. In the US, a product carrying claims to cure or prevent disease is consider an unapproved drugs until it meets the standards of blinded, placebo-controlled studies following submission of an Investigational New Drug Application (IND) to the US Food and Drug Administration.

2. Advertising claims for consumer products meet a lower standard but cases of false advertising can be acted upon by the US Federal Trade Commission. In fact, the actions of the FTC have often preceded those of the FDA on supplement products.

In closing, one might ask why a non-profit organization like CSPI might have lent its modest resources to such a case:

“This was a great opportunity for CSPI to participate in a major lawsuit against one of the biggest supplement frauds in the country,” said CSPI’s Litigation Director Stephen Gardner.

And as a fellow blogger commented to me yesterday, could Head-On be next?

Comments

  1. #1 Chad
    March 4, 2008

    I got in a heap of trouble for telling my wife that the Airborne she bought for one of my colds last year was worthless and nothing more than a vitamin tablet. Boy did I get in trouble for that… And the one Airborne I was somewhat forced to take tasted like a soap/foot combination (there’s really no other way to describe it). The whole episode was an experience I would not like to repeat.

  2. #2 Anonymoustache
    March 4, 2008

    What? First Enzyte, now Airborne???
    I’m shocked I tell you, shocked. Not to mention depressed….Good thing at least we have those cool FDA-approved SSRIs for that….

    /heh heh….couldn’t resist…
    /ducks and leaves hurriedly…

  3. Concocted by second-grade teacher Victoria Knight McDowell and her screenwriter husband Thomas Rider McDowell, Airborne promised to “boost your immune system to help your body combat germs” and instructed users to “take it at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded, potentially germ-infested environments.”

    I never really understood why this was a selling point for Airborne. I’ve nothing aganst second grade teachers or screenwriters, but what makes either of them expert enough on the immune system to come up with a product that “boosts” it? Is it just that second grade teachers are exposed to germs? If that’s so, I eagerly await Mike Rowe’s line of immune-system boosters.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    March 4, 2008

    Rick, this apparently is why neither you or I are experts in product marketing (but imagine the salaries we could draw!). I believe that the selling point was that a 2nd grade schoolteacher would know an awful lot about sick kids and, as you say, be exposed to cold-causing bacteria and viruses. How this translates into her ability to concoct an effective viral preventative product is a major leap of logic.

    Frankly, I’d have more confidence in the remedy if it were devised by a chemistry schoolteacher such as. . . you.

    We’ll see to it that Mike Rowe owes you royalties if anything comes out of your suggestion.

  5. #5 Jeff Darcy
    March 4, 2008

    I’ve nothing aganst second grade teachers or screenwriters, but what makes either of them expert enough

    I think establishing that they’re not experts is actually the point. Sadly, we live in a society where expertise is equated with elitism and ignorance is equated with authenticity. Their marketing message is that this product was not invented by pointy-headed scientists who have their heads in the clouds – or, worse, hidden mad-scientist motives – but by “plain folks” just like you and me so of course we can trust them. Yee haw. :(

  6. #6 Calli Arcale
    March 4, 2008

    Yes, I think the idea with the “grade school teacher” model is not that grade school teachers are better authorities on health but that they are in the trenches, so to speak. This gives an impression of pragmatism. People seem to like woo-peddlers who say that they didn’t waste time with decades of research but instead just made something that works. Heck, any physicians around here will tell you how patients often find months of testing annoying; they just want something that *works* so they can get on with their lives.

    There is also the anti-elitist thing that Jeff Darcy alluded to. Airborne’s marketing suggests that its developer is just like you and me — one of us. An ordinary Jane. I think this is effective partly because of the idea that medical researchers are out of touch but mostly because it also speaks to that “in the trenches” view. She didn’t make the product because she wanted to develop a medicine and cold remedies seemed like a good choice. She made it because she’s living the same life we are, and so she *knows what we’re dealing with*.

    It says a lot for the mindset of the average American that the last sentence above is more compelling than the one before it. It’s like how the ads with Robert Jarvik seem more impressive because he gave up his architecture career to study cardiology after he lost his dad to heart disease. The motivation is somehow more important than the actual facts, I suppose because it tells a more interesting story.

  7. #7 Jennifer Jackson
    March 4, 2008

    I’ve been taking Airborne for 3 years & haven’t had a cold since. Just coincidence? I AGREE that claims should not be made if there is no data to back it up BUT can we really say that Airborne DOESN’T work? There is no data to prove that.

  8. #8 efnord
    March 4, 2008

    Jennifer-

    http://www.snpp.com/episodes/3F20.html

    Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
    Lisa: That’s spacious reasoning, Dad.
    Homer: Thank you, dear.
    Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
    Homer: Oh, how does it work?
    Lisa: It doesn’t work.
    Homer: Uh-huh.
    Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
    Homer: Uh-huh.
    Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
    [Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
    Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
    [Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]
    – Maybe he wants it as a pet, “Much Apu About Nothing”

  9. #9 isles
    March 5, 2008

    “Sadly, we live in a society where expertise is equated with elitism and ignorance is equated with authenticity.”

    Yes! This! I am writing this on my bulletin board, because it captures exactly what bothers me so much about not only the little piece of ridiculousness that is Airborne but also the anti-vaccine movement.

  10. #10 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    March 5, 2008

    I’ve been taking Airborne for 3 years & haven’t had a cold since. Just coincidence? I AGREE that claims should not be made if there is no data to back it up BUT can we really say that Airborne DOESN’T work? There is no data to prove that.

    So what. My brother doesn’t take airborne and hasn’t had a cold in 3 years. You anecdote means exactly bupkis in relation to Airborne’s efficacy.

  11. #11 Chad
    March 5, 2008

    Jennifer, you’re kidding, right?

  12. #12 Peaseblossom
    March 5, 2008

    I never understood about “created by a schoolteacher” being an effective argument either. Would you buy brakes created by a cab driver? Not saying that no cab driver would be smart enough, just that just because someone has reason to want a better product is not enough to convince me that they can make one.

    As for the idea of “There’s no data to prove that it doesn’t work”; that’s a logical fallacy.

  13. #13 kadema
    September 17, 2008

    Jennifer’s comment was a vital addition to this thread. Rather than permitting speculation on the people who would purchase Airborne based on ludicrous marketing and outrageous -”miraculous” claims, we have a first-hand example of someone who would. When Airborne was first on the market I took one look at the package and knew that it was impossible for the claims to be true. There were numerous clues that would cause any discerning individual to suspect that they were being hoodwinked. To a rational person Airborne would seem ridiculous, however the irrational are those that are being targeted.

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    January 29, 2009

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  15. #15 wardenclyffe
    October 9, 2009

    Maybe they should sue the manufacturers of vitamin C (and Linus Pauling) next, for claiming for decades that it helps prevent colds with no proof. Recent studies have shown that it is also completely ineffective in preventing colds unless you are under extreme physical stress (like running a marathon).

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