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Maybe I’m just cranky.

I’m nauseated.

No, not for any suitably skeptical reason. I just don’t feel well. I ate some instant oatmeal for breakfast this morning, so please don’t anyone try to blame Cookie Crisp.

Last winter when I told my mom that I had a cold, she immediately instructed me to go out and purchase “Airborne,” a new cold remedy that works wonders. I was, well, skeptical. I did a search on the stuff and found nothing but praise. Eventually I found a site that listed the ingredients, which consisted primarily of vitamins. Vitamins are good (in moderation). Vitamins do not magically make colds disappear.

I told my mom this, but she was resolute. “It was developed by a teacher,” she said, as though teachers are privy to information that is as yet unavailable to the entire medical industry.
The common cold.

I didn’t start a fight over it. After all, the only thing taking the “remedy” would likely hurt would be my mom’s wallet. Large doses of Vitamin C could cause some gastrointestinal issues, and palmitate (the form of Vitamin A found in Airborne) causes birth defects, but I’m pretty sure my mom isn’t preggers. So why am I bothering to blast the makers of the stuff now? Because they’re completely full of shit and should be put out of business before they make more money off of people who may not so easily afford up to six useless pills a day at about 70 cents a pop.

For your reading pleasure, here’s a fun article from ABC News. The makers of Airborne claimed in ads that the product was a cold buster, and a press release claimed that it could get rid of colds within an hour of taking it. Eureeka, congratulations Airborne makers, you’ve made a groundbreaking discovery that is sure to completely change the way we look at viruses! Virii. Whatever.

Of course, this claim is backed up by a double-blind clinical test. Performed without an actual clinic. By two random guys. One of whom probably hasn’t even graduated from college. And the results weren’t actually peer reviewed. Or published. Anywhere.

So after people started looking into the true effects of the product, the manufacturer decided to remove all mention of the “clinical study” from bottles. Why, you ask?

“We found that it confused consumers,” Donahue said. “Consumers are really not scientifically minded enough to be able to understand a clinical study.”

Oh dear lord. They performed a possibly bogus “study” to “prove” they have some kind of scientific backing for their bullshit product, and then pull all mention of it because the consumers are not smart enough to understand the concept? That’s funny, Donahue, because I have a different theory. I think you’re changing your marketing copy because the consumers are too smart to get fooled by your complete and utter bullshit.

Prove your product works or shut up. Please.

Hm, I feel a little better now. Maybe I should crush critical thinking into a fine powder, collect it into a pill form, and sell it as an anti-nausea remedy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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15 Comments

  1. Score one for the good guys that they have removed the claims of curing the common cold. Unfortunately, the other side is still wayyyyy far out in front in terms of bogus/misleading/wrong marketing…

  2. Yeah, Mike, you're right. Unfortunately, snake oil salesmen fill a niche in the market for persons who are desparate or gullible enough for magical products to improve their lives. It has always been so.

    This is the kind of instance in which the FDA is helpful to the public in that it can regulate and prohibit such unproven and misleading claims. Of course, lots of stuff gets by that is at best questionable, but the FDA is effective at stopping some of the BS. Then, of course, on the other hand there are those who point out that the red tape involved in getting new medications and treatments to the public delays medical care for those in immediate and dire need for it, and that it necessarily adds tremendous costs to the development of new drugs and treatments. There's no such thing as a free lunch.

    FDA: evil or good or neither? You decide.

  3. Random coincidence! I just had a co-worker offer me a tablet of this crap as a way to ward off a flu that has been circling around my office. I didn't take it, since I was the only person in the office that decided to actually google the product and read up on the actual ingredients. The "teacher" comment is very funny… I love the placement. My favorite statement is that it utilizes the best in "herbal technology"… there's just something about the words "herbal technology" that make me laugh.

    The tablets are huge and are meant to be dropped in water, like alka seltzer. I kinda wanted to take them and tell others that they are supposed to be used as a suppository :P

  4. Sorry Bubba, but the FDA isn't a damn bit of help here. Supplements are not regulated, so they get tossed into the pile of "things that might not do what they say they do, but at least they probably won't kill you."

    Adrian: "Oh… and I didn’t know that the common cold microbe was so cuddly."

    I KNOW, isn't he the cutest? I want one but haven't seen that one in stores.

  5. FDA regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering "conventional" foods and drug products (prescription and Over-the-Counter). Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.* Manufacturers must make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading.

    FDA's post-marketing responsibilities include monitoring safety, e.g. voluntary dietary supplement adverse event reporting, and product information, such as labeling, claims, package inserts, and accompanying literature. The Federal Trade Commission regulates dietary supplement advertising.

    http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/supplmnt.html

  6. Here I go again…

    I agree and disagree. Absolutely there is no evidence that the stuff cures or prevents a cold. It is unregulated (like all other herbal supplements) and there is no valid study. But calling it "crap" is a little over the top. When you're feeling sick and you go to the doctor, what does he tell you? Drink lots of fluids and take vitamin C. Airborne is taken in fluid and contains vitamin C. My recommendation is to research the ingredients of airborne, and as long as it doesn't contain anything harmful, take it! It might not cure your cold, but it's as good as any remedy your doctor is going to recommend.

  7. actually, I went back and checked the latest review in PubMed. It doesn't have a preventative effect, but they did find it helpful in Artic and high-physical exertion situations.

  8. Bug girl…I didn't say vitamin C is proven. I said that your family doctor will tell you to drink fluids and get lots of vitamin C, so as long as there are no harmful ingredients in airborne, it's no worse than what your family doctor will recommend.

  9. Jeweliete: "I didn’t say vitamin C is proven. I said that your family doctor will tell you to drink fluids and get lots of vitamin C, so as long as there are no harmful ingredients in airborne, it’s no worse than what your family doctor will recommend."

    Except water is pretty cheap, while "Airborne" is not. In other words, your doctor will be recommending a less expensive cure.

  10. Since when does water have vitamin C in it? My doctor always recommended orange juice (yes, he recommended vitamin C…proven or not!).

    Regardless, you are right about the cost. Airborne is approximately 75 cents per tablet and is mixed in water, making the cost of each serving 75 cents. Orange juice prices vary, but the orange juice I have in my refrigerator right now (Simply Orange) costs approximately $5 for 59 ounces (7.375 servings), which averages 67 cents per serving. OJ is more cost effective than airborne and may work just as well.

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