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Thursday, March 06, 2008

"Developed by a school teacher scam artist!"

Some of you out there may be fans of the popular cold remedy Airborne. For those who aren't familiar, Airborne is more or less a fuck-ton of vitamins in a handy fizzy tablet. It is supposed to boost your immune system and allow you to fight off colds and the flu much, much more rapidly than you would otherwise. Even more impressive, it supposedly has clinical evidence supporting it. Wow! Such evidence would place it head and shoulders above rival products like Emergen-C, about which I have remarked before.

Well, if this sounds too good to be true, that's because it probably is. What a lot of you may not know is that Airborne recently lost a class action lawsuit over its claimed effectiveness and is now liable to the tune of $23.3 million. Or, to quote from a press release:

The makers of Airborne—a multivitamin and herbal supplement whose labels and ads falsely claimed that the product cures and prevents colds—will refund money to consumers who bought the product, as part of a $23.3 million class action settlement agreement.

Ouch! That's gotta hurt! So why did they lose their case for the efficacy of Airborne? Well, in all likelihood it's because they never had a case to begin with: February 2006, ABC News revealed on Good Morning America that Airborne’s much-touted lone clinical trial was actually conducted without any doctors or scientists, just a “two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study.” Soon after the plaintiff notified Airborne of his intent to file suit in March 2006, the company stopped mentioning the study and began toning down the overt cold-curing claims in favor of vague “immunity boosting” language.

This is what we refer to as "teh awesome" here on the old interwebs. A fraudulent claim that was only withdrawn when legal action was filed. Moreover, I absolutely love the cajones of a company that touts a clinical trial conducted by their own pet research duo. It's almost like the Bush Administration asking Haliburton to conduct an assessment of success in Iraq.

Given my affection for science, some of you might wonder why I seem so amused at all this. After all, someone conducted a study, right? Sure the study was bogus, but I had no way to know that, right? Well, partly you're right, I had no way to be sure the study was bogus.* Still, I think we all had pretty good warning that Airborne was not likely to be a major medical breakthrough. Specifically:

Concocted by second-grade teacher Victoria Knight McDowell and her screenwriter husband Thomas Rider McDowell, Airborne promised to “boost your immune system to help your body combat germs” and instructed users to “take it at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded, potentially germ-infested environments.” The company’s folksy “created by a school teacher!” slogan and insistence that the product be stocked with real cold, cough, and flu medicines instead of with dietary supplements, helped turn the company into an overnight success, as did an appearance by Victoria Knight McDowell on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Look, folks, it might just be me but do we really think that a second-grade teacher and a screenwriter have the requisite expertise in biochemistry, epidemiology and microbiology to craft a medication** that exceeds the best flu-preventing achievements of medical science? I sure as hell don't and, if you do, I have this bridge in Brooklyn that I've been looking to sell for some time now. I couldn't know for sure whether or not the study was legitimate, but the creation myth for this product gave off a powerful odor of bullshit.

Mostly, though, I just like seeing people who defraud the public get what's coming to them.***

* Admittedly, the fact that this study wasn't published anywhere served as a strong hint.

** Thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 Airborne was never actually regarded as a medication by the Food and Drug Administration which surely didn't stop its makers from trying to tout it as such to consumers. Seriously, people, if Airborne really worked don't you think they'd go to the trouble of getting it listed as a medication rather than selling it under a label that amounts to "for novelty purposes only"?

*** Unfortunately enough, what's usually "coming to them" is a crapload of money.

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