$30M in Fines for Scam "Created by a Teacher"

The FTC has piled on Airborne, one of the most annoying consumer scams in the market. The vitamin pill was advertised to prevent colds. And it was created by a teacher! But the FTC concluded:

...there is no competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims made by the defendants that Airborne tablets can prevent or reduce the risk of colds, sickness, or infection; protect against or help fight germs; reduce the severity or duration of a cold; and protect against colds, sickness, or infection in crowded places such as airplanes, offices, or schools.

If you've ever bought Airborne, you can collect on the settlement by visiting http://www.airbornehealthsettlement.com/.

One interesting aspect of the FTC settlement is that at least one of the agency's five Commissioners thinks the remedy is too weak. Commissioner Rosch wrote in a dissenting statement that:

...I believe that the Order provision allowing the defendants to deplete their existing inventory of paper cartons and display trays until October 31, 2008 will continue to perpetuate misperceptions about the products' ability to prevent or reduce colds...I also believe that the Complaint and the Order should address claims on the current packaging that assert that the product has "immune-boosting" qualities. Finally, and most importantly, it is my opinion that the only way to effectively remove these lingering misperceptions about the qualities of the Airborne Health Products would be to require the defendants to engage in corrective advertising. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

Amen! Why let them continue to sell off their bogus products? And I wonder whether $30 million is enough to discourage this behavior? They very well could have made more than that on the unsubstantiated anti-cold claims.

Now it's time to go after Airborne's scam competitors, Walgreen's Wal-Borne and Air Armor.


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A while back, I wrote about Airborne, the "herbal" concoction designed by a schoolteacher that is touted as preventing colds and the flu if taken preemptively or lessening their severity if taken early on in the course of a cold. I concluded that there was no evidence that it did what Victoria…
"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,…
Many thanks to science and medical senior writer Cathy Arnst of BusinessWeek for the unexpected coverage online a couple of days ago in their Working Parents blog. Ms Arnst cited Terra Sig and one of our previous posts in discussing the additional FTC settlement funds to be provided by the makers…
I saw this and was going to write about it, but it turns out that Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata beat me to it. Basically, the makers of Airborne have been slapped down bigtime for false advertising: WASHINGTON--The makers of Airborne--a multivitamin and herbal supplement whose labels and ads…

hardy har har. On the other hand I bet the company is so rolling in money that they can just write it off as the cost of doing business. Especially after it goes through appeals and gets reduced to $3 million.

I figured Airborne was BS the first time I heard their ad. It reminded me of a Beverly Hillbillies episode where Granny is selling a cure for the common cold. Just take her elixir, rest, drink plenty of fluids, and in about a week your cold will be gone. The whole special blend of herbs and vitamins "created by a school teacher" sounded like the swindler's version of that.

Wait, Airborne contains both Zinc and Vitamin C. Both of these are widely reported to aid the immune system so wouldn't they be able to make the same claim? Why stop with Airborne and its off brands? Move on to Zicam and well....all vitamins. Why even risk someone benefiting from the placebo effect here? I'm not sure what's unique about their claims except the "created by a schoolteacher" part, which I admit is annoying...but to the tune of $30M? Ok, maybe....

I fought my own little battle against Airborne. A couple of years ago, I worked for a game company that developed the first edition of the "Price is Right" DVD game. I was the main artist and designer on that game. Among the products that were included as part of the games was Airborne. Knowing it was a scam, I petitioned and convinced my bosses to let me exclude Airborne from the products that were featured in the game. So now, if you pick up a copy of that game, you will not see Airborne in it. It was a small victory but, a victory nonetheless.

Chris, I wrote on the original settlement awhile back and the $23.3 or $30 million will be far from a deterrent. In my post, I noted that Airborne sales were US$300 million in 2007 and were expected to hit $1 billion this year. As long as the stuff is still permitted on the market, one could consider the 5-10% penalty just another cost of doing business.

btw, add GermMD to your list as well.

Interestingly, my very media-conscious co-workers have stopped recommending Airborne to each other since this news came out. Before that, they were very enthusiastic about it, recommending it practically every time someone sneezed ;). They have even quieted down a bit on their claims for yet another competitor, Emergen-Cee (which does produce a pleasant-tasting drink on a hot day). So a message of some sort is getting through to some people.

I only saw Airborne for the first time a few weeks ago (I'm no in the US) and I just didn't get how "Created by a school teacher!" was a good selling point at all. Doesn't that already imply that it's crappy? Schoolteachers generally don't know anything about developing supplements. If "created by a school teacher!" was on a book about how to handle large groups of kids, that would be a selling point, but not on vitamins.

@Katy & @Cabalamat,

The real problem was that Airborne claimed to have had their product's efficacy verified by an independent lab, but it was found that the lab didn't even exist. This goes way beyond homeopathy. So maybe the effect from vitamins, herbs, or whatever is due to the actual stuff, or maybe its placebo; that's fine, and it's up to you. But you can't claim that a nonexistent lab found your product effective; that's just fraud.

Thanks for the clarification, I was unaware. That is truly fraud and worse, probably didn't help their sales any more than putting the standard disclaimers on. Airports are yucky and people are paranoid; you could sell any kind of "immune support" vitamin there.

I struggle with this kind of product. I have friends, dear people I love, who RAVE about homeopathic products etc and I just can't make myself be the terrible cynic (it doesn't work anyway). And I can't dismiss outright the significance of possible placebo effects. Does that make me a bad denialist?

The other thing that people overlook is that vitamins are not "good" things; you can't just pour extreme quantities of some vitamins into your body and assume there will be only a positive effect.

I don't remember all the details at the moment (this was something I was digging into online a couple of years ago), but in the early stages of pregnancy, too much vitamin A can increase the risk of birth defects... and even taking Airborne as directed (3 a day.. though they also put "every 3 hours") puts you way over that upper limit.

So it's not just wasting money, it's actively harming people.

Mrs. BigDumbChimp is a very intelligent and rational person yet I catch her downing this stuff occasionally. I've tried to explain the uselessness of it to no avail.

I'll be bringing this up tonight. Should be interesting.

Her big mistake was leaving off the standard disclaimer that nutritional supplements are required to carry, "This product has not been tested or approved by the FDA to treat or cure any disease or condition."
There are many products on the shelves that make all sorts of claims right on their labels, followed by a disclaimer of everything they tell you. This keeps THEM out of court.

By Joseph Brenner (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink

I love the stuff and it has helped me and my family on several occassions.

By Kerri Robertson (not verified) on 29 Aug 2008 #permalink

Had good results. My family and friends had most of the same results. BTW going to court actually did her a favor.

Amazing. There are still people who believe this garbage? This chart explains it all...

By LanceR, JSG (not verified) on 07 Mar 2009 #permalink