Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

The scammers responsible for Airborne are forced to cough up $23.3 million

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 falsely claimed that the product cures and prevents colds–will refund money to consumers who bought the product, as part of a $23.3 million class action settlement agreement. The company will pay for ads in Better Homes & Gardens, Parade, People, Newsweek, and many other magazines and newspapers instructing consumers how to get refunds.

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.

I wrote about what a scam Airborne was (and still is) quite a while ago, two years ago, in fact. I wrote about it again a couple of months later, when the schoolteacher who invented it, Victoria Knight-McDowell, was forced to admit that it didn’t work in decreasing the duration or severity of colds. At the time, the company claimed that it had done a double-blind, placebo-controlled study to test its product (a trial, that–surprise, surprise!–was never published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. The company that supposedly did the trial, GNG Pharmaceutical Services, turned out to be a just a couple of guys with no clinical trial experience who put together a company just to test Airborne. After this was revealed, Knight-McDowell and her company started backing away from the claims, but it was too late:

But in February 2006, ABC News revealed on Good Morning America that Airborne’s much-touted lone clinical trial was actually conducted without any doctors or scientists, just a “two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study.” 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.

Airborne’s basic formula contains Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as other nutrients common in multivitamins; the amino acids glutamine and lysine, and an “herbal extract proprietary blend.” CSPI cautions that Airborne may provide too much vitamin A, since just two pills provide 10,000 IU–the maximum safe level for a day–and the package directs customers to take three per day. In addition to several flavors of the original formula, other Airborne products include “Power Pixies,” an artificially sweetened powder version for children; Airborne Seasonal, which is described as a “non-drowsy formula containing a nutritional blend which promotes normal histamine levels”; Airborne On-the-Go; and Airborne Nighttime.

“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.”

The problem here, of course, is the same one that I and others have lamented about again and again, namely the double standard accorded to “supplements” under the law. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) severely limited the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate dietary supplements and even allows manufacturers to make health claims for them, as long as the claims are not too specific (which is why meaningless claims to “boost the immune system” are so prevalent). What amazes me here is that, despite how blatant Airborne was about its specific health claims, it could still be marketed as a supplement and sold largely free of FDA regulation. What amazes me even more is that, even with such claims and with the company’s insistence that Airborne be kept on the same shelf with real cold remedies, a class action suit actually succeeded. The DSHEA is just that bad and emasculates the FDA just that much. It is a law that desperately needs to be changed; it’s not for nothing that I and others sometimes refer to it as the “Quackery Enabling Act of 1994.”

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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