the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

Airborne Baloney

published January 2007 | comments (8)
magazine cover
The latest fad in cold remedies is full of hot air

I violated Feynman’s first principle during a recent book tour. I traveled daily through congested airports, crowded jets and crammed bookstores amid sneezing, coughing, germ-infested multitudes. One day, while squeezed into the sardine section of coach, with the guy behind me obeying the command of the germs in his lungs to go forth and multiply, I cursed myself for having forgotten my Airborne tablets, an orange-flavored effervescent concoction of herbs, antioxidants, electrolytes and amino acids that fizzles into action in a glass of water.

In the logic-tight compartments of my brain, my magic module had trumped my skeptic module. I had not given this product any thought until, much to my chagrin, the host for one of my book tour stops, a Menlo Park, Calif., Internet venture capitalist and science blogger named David Cowan,
mentioned that recently he had debunked Airborne in on his blog. A science-savvy investor, Cowan was quick to spot the clever marketing technique of suggesting that Airborne prevents or cures colds without actually saying so. “Take at the FIRST sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded environments,” the instructions say. Then “repeat every three hours as necessary.” In the (really) fine print, however, is this: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Even more perfidious is how the company turned a liability into an asset. Most drugs are developed by Big Pharma — Brobdingnagian corporations with vast teams of scientists who have, to date, failed to cure the common cold. Airborne’s creator is “Knight-McDowell Labs” — Victoria Knight-McDowell is a schoolteacher and her husband, Rider McDowell, is a scriptwriter. Instead of hiding their lack of credentials, they boast about them on their Web page (www.airbornehealth. com): CREATED BY A SECOND-GRADE SCHOOL TEACHER! “As any confidence artist knows,” Cowan explains in his blog, “disclosing unflattering facts up front wins the target’s trust.” And $100 million in annual sales is all the data the lab needs.

As for real scientific evidence on Airborne, the Web page used to provide a link to “clinical results” (no longer there). When Cowan wrote to the company for the information, h received this reply: “The 2003 trial was a small study conducted for what was then a small company. While it yielded very strong results, we feel that the methodology (protocol) employed is not consistent with our current product usage recommendations. Therefore, we no longer make it available to the public.” Why? The company CEO, Elise Donahue, told ABC News: “We found that it confused consumers. Consumers are really not scientifically minded enough to be able to understand a clinical study.”

ABC News looked into the clinical trial and discovered that it was conducted by GNG Pharmaceutical Services, “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.”

In one final lunge at product verisimilitude (dang it, that zesty taste feels like it works), I consulted Harriet Hall, a retired U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and family physician who studies alternative medicine. Hall looked up Airborne’s ingredients in the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database and found no evidence that any of the ingredients prevents colds. Worse, vitamin A is unsafe in doses greater than 10,000 units a day, and Airborne contains 5,000 units per tablet and recommends five pills a day or more. The only positive finding was for vitamin C, for which some evidence indicates that taking high doses may shorten the duration of cold symptoms by one to one and a half days in some patients. But the large amounts needed may cause side effects. “There’s more evidence for chicken soup than for Airborne,” Hall told me. “In the absence of any credible double-blind studies to support the claims for Airborne, I’ll stick to hand washing.”

Chicken soup for the traveler’s soul.

topics in this column: , , ,

8 Comments to “Airborne Baloney”

  1. Michael Dalan, DC, CCSP Says:

    I am disheartened to here that you fell for this flim flam. I have been telling patients for years to use their heads when it come to this typo of thing. Maybe that is bad advice as using your head is precisely what led you down the path of deception. Having said that, I must admit that on one hand I feel upset that you and millions of others have fallen for this and numerous other bogus products claims but deep in the heart of me I wish I had been so devious to have thought of it first. What an easy life these people must have… make a useless product that catches on like wildfire and sit back to rake in the cash. Buyer beware and if it seems too good to be true it almost always is.

  2. Fred B Says:

    Even Palmolive washes hands while you do dishes. “What can I use to make my hands look like yours, Madge?”. A: “Everything! and use Palmolive dish washing liquid”.

    Perhaps you should wash your hands more often…Oh, wait, that destroys the low dose of virus you need to build immunity.

  3. P R Allen Says:

    Michael,

    The proof that Airborne was effective should have been the fact that you did not get a cold after going through that airport and flying on that plane.

    If you did get a cold, then you obviously didn’t take it at the “first sign”, you must have missed it by a few minutes or even a few seconds.

    Or maybe you don’t have “enough faith” for it to work it’s magic.

    Of course, you know I’m joking. But to be on the safe side I’m preparing some chicken soup.

  4. aqk Says:

    Mother said “Wash your hands!”
    And wash them continuously!
    Can’t do this?
    Well. Read on:

    My small company is now developing a convenient portable pouch for Americans, that will fit in the front of the trousers (or skirt) and will allow folks to keep their hands in there, instead of in their dirty pockets, or worse, caressing some filthy germ-infested doorknob!
    Much like a Scot’s Sporrin.

    Our water-tight polycarbonate/polyethylene “sporrin” will be filled with a strong anti-bacterial detergent solution.
    Attached to it will be a small disposable roll of towels, as well as an optional hi-intensity ultraviolet light, which will be attached to the belt-buckle.
    Rechargeable batteries will fit in the user’s pocket or purse.

    The dream of continuous handwashing has been finally realized!
    NO MORE GERMS!

    We hope to bundle a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the first 1000 orders.

  5. Emmanuel Padin Says:

    It is sad that so many people fall for this kind of pseudoscience (me included in the past). Even medical doctors advertise many of these products. I once visited a physiatrist in Puerto Rico for a shoulder problem. While I was waiting in the reception room, one patient commented to the doctor that if he kept selling a miracle product call Goji in his office, he would be soon out of business!

  6. Greatferm (Jay Conner) Says:

    My Grandfather was a doctor, and one day when I was very young I was in his back office while his nurse was tidying up, and I noticed some very large jars full of identical pills in a storage closet. I remarked that there must be a lot of whatever those pills cured going around, and the nurse replied “Those are sugar pills. When someone comes to see the doctor, they expect to get a pill. Doctor examines them, and if he finds something wrong, he treats it, but if he finds nothing wrong, he may give them some of these. And you know what ? Very often they feel much better, and come in asking for a refill “.

    Don’t knock the Placebo Effect. Better to feel better and not know why, than feel worse and not know why.

  7. Gojis Says:

    Super Post, w

  8. Félix Araújo-Pérez Says:

    Thanks for this article! Now my boyfriend and his roommate will believe me.

Leave a Comment