Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Airborne, the new snake oil

The New York Times reports: [edited]

The makers of Airborne, a line of popular herbal supplements that was marketed as a “miracle cold buster,” have decided to settle the false-advertising complaints in a class-action lawsuit for $23.3 million, according to one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

Who would ever believe that “an effervescent dietary supplement that was created by a school teacher” could cure the common cold? Evidently, quite a few people: the company says it took in more than $100 million from sniffly consumers through 2006, who followed the company’s advice to take the stuff at the first sign of symptoms and to expect relief within an hour or two.

Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern, Kevin Costner and other stars endorse the product, and Airborne has been featured on the “Dr. Phil” and “Live With Regis and Kelly” television shows.

Airborne said that a double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted with “care and professionalism” by a company specializing in clinical trial management, GNG Pharmaceutical Services.

GNG is actually a two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study. There was no clinic, no scientists and no doctors. The man who ran things said he had lots of clinical trial experience. He added that he had a degree from Indiana University, but the school says he never graduated.

An official at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food health and safety advocacy group that helped bring the lawsuit, disagreed. “There’s no credible evidence that what’s in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment,” David Schardt said in a news release.

Will this latest chink in Airborne’s armor hurt sales? That will be entirely up to consumers, who have begun to desert echinacea, another popular herbal remedy, after studies slammed its purported cold-fighting properties. Of course, the hopper keeps spinning, and another study popped up last month claiming it could work after all.

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