“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.”
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?