The [Air]Borne Identity

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! :)]


Chelsea is the proud mama of an amazing toddler-aged girl. She works in the retail industry while vehemently disliking mankind and, every once in a while, her bottled-up emotions explode into WordPress as a lengthy, ranty, almost violent blog. These will be your favorite Chelsea moments. Follow Chelsea on Twitter: chelseaepp.

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  1. I think this is an excellent post and I will sign the petition once I create a login on that site so it will let me in.

    As far as Oprah is concerned, I must refer to the Newsweek cover story in which the text, “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” appears in front of Ms Winfrey’s face. I think we can pretty well assume that Oprah’s statements on anything medical are at best dubious and, as is the case for vaccines, harmfully negligent.

    As skeptics, I think it is our duty to try to work against all appeals to celebrity regarding issues of a scientific nature. Oprah is an obvious target but there are loads of celebrities endorsing all sorts of things with little scientific supporting evidence. We must find a way to educate the populace against assuming that if a television personality suggests something, they are not experts and won’t likely have any credibility.

    Happy Hacking,

    1. Thanks!!

      And you are absolutely right. Celebrity endorsements seem to trick people into thinking that it’s a good product. But like you said, they are not experts. Blindly following a celebrity’s advice simply because they’re a household name is a terrible idea.

  2. Gonz – You can sign the petition without logging in. Just fill in the info on the front page, skip any additional petition suggestions (unless you wish to sign them too, of course) and then at the bottom there’s a link for continuing without signing in.

  3. From Airborne’s website.
    These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

    That should be required on each side of there box in big bold lettering.
    Now, what can we do about Align Daily Probiotic Bullshit Supplements?

    1. Actually, that may be printed on the box somewhere. I guarantee that if it is, it isn’t big OR bold, though. And I am fairly certain that people would pay it no mind anyway. Where that warning should be located is right over the product, in place of the empty promise of a boosted immune system.

  4. The site seems to not be functioning, it’s not registering my signature.

    I’ll try again later.

  5. Thanks for the article Chelsea.
    I spent some time immuno-compromised while I received treatmant for an ailment and was amazed at how many well meaning friends offered help by way of books and herbs to boost my immune system.
    Fortunately I had a marvellous team looking after me and a Prof who described to me the extemely complex relationship my immuno-system had with my drug treatment program.
    These boosters are unsafe and ineffective. I never resist the oppotunity to offer my opinion to my pharmacist who sells this junk science along with Detox programs…

  6. “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.”

    When I was searching my local CVS for something homeopathic for 10^23 day last February, I found them hard to find because they were mixed in with the real medicine. For example, the Oscillococcinum> was mixed in with the OTC cold and flu remedies, and the Calms Forte sleeping pills were near the No Doz (which makes sense since they are both caffeine).

    I thought at the time this was just an inconvenience for people intending to participate in anti-homeopathy demonstrations, but as you point out, it’s much more serious.

    BTW, writing this comment was a good excuse to watch Randi again.

  7. These sorts of things I find maddening. I have asthma and allergies, and so am (and always have been) prone to getting colds. I get them often, sometimes they’re short-lived, sometimes for weeks. People are always telling me to try this or that, mum even bought me a FIFTY DOLLAR bottle of “ColdFX” which did nothing. I’m sick of this nonsense.

  8. Say what you will…the wife swears by the stuff. Good luck Chelsea, the crusade to reform this kind of thing has been an uphill battle since Dr. Hopp’n John’s miracle serpent oil from the Grand Imam of ancient Egypt.

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