If you’ve caught a cold in the last ten years then you’ve probably had at least one person try to convince you to use a product called Airborne, a purported cure for the common cold which proudly proclaims it was invented by a school teacher. Because the first person you look for when you’re sick is a school teacher as opposed to, say, an actual doctor.
For me that person is my mother-in-law who is absolutely sold on the product. Every time I catch a cold, usually because someone else in the house has one, she gently reminds me that she has plenty of Airborne around for me to use. And, every time, I read the back of the box to her that says “THIS PRODUCT IS NOT INTENDED TO TREAT, CURE, OR DIAGNOSE ANY DISEASE.” And, every time, she says, “I know, but I take it and my cold isn’t as bad as everyone else’s.” The old anecdotal evidence thing. Sometimes she does seem to fare better, but most of the time she’s as miserable or more so than anyone else in the house who has a cold. This time when we both had colds mine was shorter in duration and less severe than hers was and I didn’t take anything other than plenty of fluids and rest. I love my mother-in-law dearly, but the product is an expensive placebo pill and has about the same success rate.
Well as it turns out there are other folks who were just as skeptical and they ended up filing a class action lawsuit against the company for making false advertising claims:
Makers of the herbal supplement Airborne have agreed to pay $23.3 million in a class-action lawsuit over false advertising. David Schardt, a senior nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says it’s just one battle in his efforts to prevent companies from making misleading claims.
The spread of Airborne has been something of a national phenomenon, with hopeful consumers reaching for the product that said, “It’s the one designed by a school teacher.”
But it’s also the one, Schardt says, that’s been misleading consumers for 10 years. First, he says, Airbone entered the market claiming that its formula — a result of research by second-grade teacher Victoria Knight-McDowell — could ward off colds. Airborne later backed off, reworking its campaign to say the supplement “boosts your immune system.”
You can’t get much more vague than it “boosts your immune system.” Really? In what way and to what effect? They won’t say, but the implication is clear. They don’t have any evidence that it does anything at all and the folks who filed the lawsuit even looked for any research that might have been done:
Consumers are still likely to be misled by the product, Schardt says. He and his teams searched for anyone who had studied Airborne’s combination of herbs and vitamins. The company had pointed to one research effort, but that was later revealed to be a two-person project paid for by Airborne. “It was so bad,” Schardt says. “The company wouldn’t let anyone see it.”
Unlike the lawsuit against the makers of Enzyte I wrote about awhile back, this one is a pretty minor victory. The terms of the settlement state that the company denies any wrongdoing or illegal activity, but you can get your money back if you have any old receipts for Airborne laying around. Back when the company was claiming their product would prevent or diminish colds they were clearly breaking the law, but now that they’ve switching to the vague “boosts your immune system” claim they’re in a grey enough area that they’ll likely avoid the FDA’s wrath anytime soon. At least until someone suffers harm from the product as it’s essentially a bunch of random herbs and mega-doses of vitamins such as vitamin C.
At $6 to $8 for a tube of 10 tablets, which you are supposed to take every three to four hours, Airborne is an expensive non-remedy that will continue to rake in the bucks because herbal and dietary supplements are almost completely unregulated so long as they keep their claims vague enough. The news of the settlement didn’t shake my mother-in-law’s faith in the product and she’s probably not alone in that regard as the fan base for Airborne is pretty big. It’s just another example of how having a lack of ethics is the path to riches in this country.