Thursday, December 21, 2006

Scientific American: Airborne Baloney

I am very excited to say that the January issue of Scientific American has published a feature article by the Skeptic columnist Michael Shermer about my blog post debunking Airborne, the cold remedy fad.

Though the press has generously and frequently covered my venture capital activities, this is the one media appearance that I will save to show my children. I am proud to set an example for them one doesn't need a doctorate to be a scientist--anyone can think critically to draw legitimate conclusions about the world around us.

UPDATE: This Scientific American article has since been submitted as evidence in federal court that science does not support the claims of Airborne, and that the company has engaged in deceptiv marketing. As a result Airborne lost a $23 million verdict payable to its consumers, and $7 milion inpenalties levied by the FTC.  And people ask me why I blog!! 


  1. That's totally cool! I thought your original posting was a great reminder about pattent medicine is still widely available in our world.

  2. The body and mind combination is an amazing and still misunderstood piece of machinery. Some people have enough will power to fight off much nastier diseases then a common cold. Perhaps all Airborne does is make you believe and that is the real medicine. As long as there is no damage done, I think it is a great idea. After all, in a lot of medical trial patients that take placebos usually do better then the control group that gets no treatment at all. One other item of note, hypochondria is real and can cause real physical and mental illness, so perhaps thinking you are going to be well due to whatever it is you ingested can have the opposite effect?

    (No I do not work for Airborne :) )

  3. Misha

    By your logic, the FDA should close up shop and invite every snake oil vendor in the world to scam us with harmless placebos.

    Yes, it's true that inert pills can, statistically, yield a small benefit. But if we succumb to the temptation of partaking in this tiny placebo effect, there will be no incentive for research, and no way for patients to distinguish effective meds. In short, we will make no strides toward developing and proliferating meds that actually work.

  4. But wait, how can it be fake? Say it ain't so! Come on, it's not like someone without credentials developed this stuff, it was an elementary school teacher ... and they know their stuff!

    Anita ;)

  5. David,

    I think you misinterpreted my post. I emphasize on the "as long as there is no damage" piece. I agree with you completely, FDA's role is making sure consumer and doctors can consume and prescribe useful medicine. As far as the sale of snake oil, there is not much that can be done if the snake oil does not make specific promises and/or cause bodily harm (basically if the snake oil vendor can not be taken to court by consumers). There are literally thousands of homeopathic potions and remedies that are sold today, they all supposedly make you well or prevent something from happening or cure something you have. Do they work? I don't know. I am sure some do and some do not. The bottom line is, I think the market will sort it self out. If Airborne is providing enough reason for people that they continually purchase and recommending it to others, it sounds and feels like a great product.

    By the way it tastes great too! I was at Costco this weekend and the box of airborne that contains industrial doses was nearly empty ;)

  6. Misha,

    But there is damage when patients are tricked into buying useless meds, even with the tiny placebo effect. The consumer is financially exploited, exposed to unnecessary meds (e.g. an overdose of Vitamin A in Airborne), and distracted from more effective therapies (such as hand-washing or even chicken soup).

    "There are literally thousands of homeopathic potions and remedies that are sold today, they all supposedly make you well or prevent something from happening or cure something you have. Do they work? I don't know. I am sure some do and some do not."

    You are sure, but you are wrong. They do not work. The fundamental premise of homeopathy is inconsistent with the laws of chemistry and physics, and no reputably administered double bilnd clinical study has ever shown statistically significant results from homeopathic therapies.

    And you think they can't cause harm? Consider the malaria victims who passed on declined preventative meds because they were protected by homeopathic pills:


    1. Anonymous8:22 AM

      David, chicken soup is not a therapy. The only reason people drink it is for the hot broth, which acts against mucus. Hot tea or coffee will do the same. I'm currently fighting a horrible cold and while I know airborne is not the cure, how can vitamins be bad? In fact, during a cold, the body loses vital nutrients, causing fatigue and general awfulness, so the additional vitamins are probably helpful. But I promise, soup does nothing but hydrate. Anyway, most drugs on shelves are not cures, rather, temporary symptom relief.

  7. Misha6:17 PM

    Hi David,

    Was watching the news and remembered your article... seems the snake oil sales people can get sued :)

    Airborne just lost a law suit for 23.3 million. I tip my hat to you!


  8. Boy oh boy. Anyone who knows anything could tell you that airborne is nothing but hooey and hogwarts.

    Here, read this:

    This was written by the surgeon general arthur c clarke himself. If you don't believe it that's your own problem, pal.

  9. Are they still selling this junk? I remember always hearing the commercials for this stuff like it was some magic pill, and it seemed it had the public fooled into believing it.

  10. Anonymous8:35 AM

    I hear a lot of anger regarding airborne. Why not ask yourself, if medical science can vaccinate, perform transplants, decode our genes and fight allergies, where is the cure for the common cold? Don't eviscerate airborne before you question our government's witholding of cures that possibly do exist, but would damage the pharmaceutical companies. The cold is a virus. We've sent people to the moon. Hmmm... Just so you guys know, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Just thinking.

  11. For me I have never found anything that is as effective for the prevention and elimination of the common cold. If it doesn't work for you fine, but don' mess with it for the rest of us.