We’ve all seen it lurking on the shelves of our local pharmacies and grocery stores. Airborne; the “get over your cold faster by boosting your immune system with herbs,” Alka-seltzer-esque tablet. It was created in the early 1990s by a 2nd grade teacher in California. I don’t mean to offend the 2nd grade teachers of the world, but why would I take medicine created by someone whose specialties include recess, spelling tests and report cards? I’m sure she is a very smart woman. I mean, look at how popular her home-brew became. Clearly she did something right, but that thing was not, in fact, providing mankind with a scientifically proven remedy for preventing illness.
She started out by selling her product to local health food stores. It was then put on the market around 1998, but hit the big leagues a few years later when Oprah endorsed it in the early 2000s. I was working at CVS as a pharmacy technician when the endorsement was made, and it was difficult to keep the product on the shelf. Was it suggested to patients by the pharmacists? No. In fact I cannot begin to recall how many times I heard quite the opposite – my bosses encouraging patients to skip Airborne and instead pursue scientific medicine when applicable. But if Oprah says something works, it totally does, right? The CSPI and FTC disagree.
In 2008, the FTC became involved when Center for Science in the Public Interest filed suit against Airborne Health, Inc. “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,” said Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. On top of that, the creator, Victoria Knight-McDowell made claims that it was, in fact, clinically proven to do such things. Which it is not. The case was settled in 2008 for $23.5 million.
Steve Novella covered the suit on Science-Based Medicine in 2008. He makes mention of the fact that during the settlement hearing, the company did not at any time admit to any wrongdoing. This blows my mind. First, how could they honestly believe that a false double-blind study is an ok thing to provide consumers with? Second, that is a lot of money to settle with if they’ve done nothing wrong. Steve goes on to mention this:
It should also be noted that Airborne is not without risk because it is a supplement. Airborne contains too much vitamin A. Two pills contains 10,000 IU, which is the maximum safe limit, but the instructions say to take three pills per day. So taken as directed Airborne contains more than the safe limit of vitamin A. This would also have to be added to vitamin A consumed in food, and of course many consumers may also be taking a multivitamin without realizing that Airborne is essentially just another vitamin pill itself.
I emailed an old friend who is now a pharmacist (whom I will be keeping anonymous), and asked what her thoughts on Airborne are. She said it’s pretty much a gimmick. The amount of Vitamin C in Airborne is 1667% daily value. Vitamin C taken in high doses on a daily basis apparently has some (but not much) effect for people in high physical stress situations – marathon runners, athletes and soldiers – but for the common person taking a megadose of Vitamin C daily, no effect on colds would be seen. When Vitamin C was tested for treatment of colds in 7 separate studies, it was no more effective than placebo at shortening the duration of cold symptoms.
In a similar case to the CSPI class action suit against Airborne Health, Inc., Walgreens pharmacy was filed against by the FTC for their store brand, Wal-Born. Under the proposed settlement with Walgreens and the approved settlement with the Improvita officers, all the defendants are or would be barred from claiming that their products prevent or treat cold or flu symptoms, or protect against cold and flu viruses by boosting the immune system, unless there is scientific evidence to back up these claims. Walgreens settled the case for $5.97 million.
Moving on to present day, Target pharmacies are posting ads on their endcaps promoting Airborne. It’s one thing to advertise, but it’s completely another to use an image of a pharmacist – a trained medical professional whom people rely on for honest health-based advice – in the ad. By doing so, they are saying to customers that their pharmacists would suggest it to them as a valid medical treatment.
It’s difficult to read in the picture, but the blurb next to the row of Airborne says “Simple, effective protection for your immune system”. Bull. Unfortunately, in regards to FDA standards, they are allowed to say such a thing as long as they don’t directly state that it treats or cures a specific condition or disease. Does that mean that it’s ok to do so as far as consumer relations? No. The placement of the pharmacists picture, along with the fact that it’s a shelf above NyQuil and other cough and cold remedies, leads the consumer to believe that it is, in fact, medicine. Where it should actually be located is with the other non-FDA regulated herbal and dietary supplements.
I’ve drafted a simple petition. Please take the time to sign it, and once we’ve reached the number of signatures I’m hoping for, I would like to take it to the next level – telling Target that as wise consumers, we refuse to be mislead by sneaky product placement. As skeptics it is our duty to call companies out on their bull. What we don’t fall for, others will, and it simply perpetuates the falsehood that non-science can prevail.
[Thank you to Jessika for bringing these Target pictures to our attention! :)]