BusinessWeek sends us Airborne

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 of Airborne for false claims to consumers:

For background on the charges against the product check out the informative blog terra sigillata, by a pharmacologist, which pulls apart false claims made on behalf of natural remedies (in fact, he pulls apart false medical claims in general--a blog worth bookmarking).

Nothing has really changed since our 4 March 2008 post that Airborne would at that time pay consumers up to a total of $23.3 million in refunds for up to six purchases per customer. Funds for the settlement have now been moved up to $30 million but as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) stated:

Of greater significance for future practices, the FTC settlement also addresses one important thing that was deliberately not part of the class action settlement -- restrictions on Airborne's practices in the future. After the class action suit had been pending for some time, CSPI learned last year that the FTC was also investigating Airborne. We decided to defer to the FTC on seeking restrictions on Airborne's future practices to avoid conflicting results. We had faith that the FTC would impose at least as many restrictions, if not more, as we could achieve in the private litigation. That faith was justified--the FTC consent order prohibits Airborne from claiming that it can prevent or cure the common cold.

The FTC expressly noted that there is "no credible evidence that Airborne products, taken as directed, will reduce the severity or duration of colds, or provide any tangible benefit for people who are exposed to germs in crowded places." This is exactly what CSPI had determined in 2006 and was the basis for the private class action.

The settlement announced today represents an excellent example showing the importance of public and private enforcement of consumer protection laws. [all emphases are mine]

As much as I appreciate the endorsement of BusinessWeek's Cathy Arnst, readers really should visit my blogging colleague Orac of Respectful Insolence for his patented more-expansive deconstructions of the Airborne remedy that date back to his original blog. (here, here, and here in chronological order.).

I wasn't going to comment on the additional funds added to the settlement but did put this comment in when Chris Hoofnagle covered the recent development at denialism blog:

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.

No surprise that the comment thread at the BusinessWeek post has primarily garnered defenders of natural remedies for colds and flu and a version of the pharma shill gambit whereby a reader criticized BusinessWeek for taking ads from Big Pharma. Remember that I am a natural products pharmacologist and perhaps the most active promoter of natural remedies in these parts, but only where the data supports such promotion. One commenter did remind me that Cold-EEZE lozenges were indeed tested at The Cleveland Clinic within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms and, in a 1996 Annals of Internal Medicine paper, reported to reduce the duration of symptoms by about 40% (but only when taken every two hours while awake; but read paper for potential toxicity of that much zinc).

But the data, or lack of data, show that Airborne is no more than a placebo, and an expensive placebo at that, which lacks any constituent in quantities sufficient for any useful biological effect. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that combined sales of the various Airborne products will indeed reach the project $1 billion this year. Yet commenters criticize Big Pharma?

With this market, a $30 million slap on the wrist will be of little consequence. In fact, the free publicity of the FTC action that has brought out vocal defenders online and in print is probably worth $30 million in advertising.


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"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,…
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…
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…
While I am on vacation, I'm reprinting a number of "Classic Insolence" posts to keep the blog active while I'm gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I'm guessing that quite a few of my readers have…

I for one am tired of profiteers giving the natural supplement business a bad name. These companies will manipulate research to trick people into thinking their products can product unrealistic health effects.

If you notice, they will never let you see any information about a study that hard outcomes that people care about (i.e. a placebo controlled trial that showed people got better sooner, or that they did not have symptoms as severe or as long). They will take facts such as ?our product has anti-oxidants? and then make unsubstantiated claims like ?you will get better faster.?

Don?t get me wrong, there are some very legitimate products out there, and there are some products that probably work but just have not been studied yet. But be wary of a product that refuses to go to the final level of research by doing studies against a placebo with out comes that matter to people.

Companies should give open access to all relevant research and then let people read & decide for themselves. Compare the below website with others, and you will see how focusing on and giving access to relevant studies helps the public make informed decisions.

The industry should adopt the higher standard.


By Daddydoctor (not verified) on 20 Aug 2008 #permalink

After I read this post I wandered around the Airborne site to see how they are dealing with this while still promoting their product. I noticed they had a medical experts panel. I was disgusted to see that their pockets are so deep that they could buy the expertise of Richard Kingston, a clinical pharmacy professor who spent 30 years on the faculty of one of the best pharmacy schools in the States.

Professor Kingston now runs a compnay doing postmarketing surveillance for drugs and supplement safety issues but still retains a clincal faculty position at Minnesota. How objective can his supplement safety data be if he is a paid hitman for the supplement industry?

By neurospasm (not verified) on 21 Aug 2008 #permalink

Refuses to go to the final level of research by doing studies against a placebo with out comes that matter to people.