Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Like many governments, the US tries to protect its citizens from quackery and scam. We license medical service providers, regulate clinical drug testing, and enforce disclosures of medical risks. Indeed, societies need these processes to properly assess the efficacy and dangers of new medical technologies. But when the vast majority of our population lacks a basic understanding of scientific principles, the medical safeguards fail. Con men exploit the scientifically illiterate by appealling to their hope for miracle cures, while overcoming their skepticism with confusing and intimidating jargon.
Today's blog post is inspired by one particularly egregious example of highly scalable theft -- a phenomenally successful product called Airborne, that is the number one selling cold and flu remedy in many large drug retailers. Allegedly, sales have topped $100 million after several consecutive years of doubling revenues.
The pill itself is nothing but some vitamins, some commercially tired herbs and the electrolytes you get from a swish of Gatorade. But Airborne's success springs from a remarkably shrewd and sinister campaign that employs a number of diversions to mislead the public without blatantly violating any laws. Essentially, the clever marketing messages and packaging suggest that Airborne cures the common cold, without ever actually saying so.

The Airborne Package
The convenient pocket-sized package, illustrated with cartoons of germs, displays these instructions:
For Use In: Airplanes - Restaurants - Offices - Hospitals - Schools - Health Clubs - Carpools - Theaters - Sports Arenas
Take at the FIRST sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded environments.* 100% Guaranteed Satisfaction.
AIRBORNE PLEDGE: AIRBORNE was developed by a school teacher who was sick of catching colds in class.* The natural ingredients in AIRBORNE'S unique formulation, reflects [sic] state of the art antioxidant, electrolyte and herbal technology. WE PLEDGE to our customers to continually upgrade the AIRBORNE formula as improved technology avails itself, thereby offering the finest most effective health formula possible. Satisfaction guaranteed.
Without actually saying so, the package implies every which way it can that Airborne is a medicine that prevents or cures colds. But did you notice the asterisks on the four sentences containing any reference to actually treating colds? I scoured the package for clarification, but I had to literally use a magnifying glass before I could make out the footnote in fine, fine print that read:

*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.
In case the print is too small for you, here's a more legible version:

*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.
So if this product wasn't intended to treat colds, why should we take it at the first sign of cold symptoms, and why use it in airplanes, carpools etc.? What does it even mean to REPEAT EVERY THREE HOURS AS NECESSARY? Necessary to do what? It doesn't make any sense, but the manufacturer Knight McDowell Labs knows that few people will ever notice.
In fact, their CEO Elise Donahue knows better than anyone how to make claims without being pinned down. Here, ABC News reported on a Good Morning America interview with Knight McDowell Labs' CEO:

"We don't know if Airborne is a … cure for the common cold. What Airborne does is it helps your body build a healthy immune system. When you have a healthy immune system, then it allows your body, on its own, to fight off germs."
Donahue said the best proof that the product works was that 40,000 customers contact the company every year. But a number of medical experts and watchdog groups are skeptical that Airborne prevents or cures colds.
"Simply washing your hands during cold and flu season is a much more effective way of preventing colds," said David Kroll, a pharmacologist at Duke University Medical School.
Yet the Airborne box tells users to take the product at the first sign of a cold. An Airborne ad testimonial called it a miracle cold buster. And the company said in a news release Airborne would get rid of most colds in one hour.

The School Teacher Diversion
Magicians know that the best way to trick an audience is to divert their attention away from what the magician is doing with a flamboyant gesture or joke. The fraudsters at Knight McDowell Labs elevated this to an art form with an insidious diversion that turned a liability into a "viral growth" marketing engine...
You see, KNIGHT-MCDOWELL LABS is not the reputable pharmaceutical research institute from whom you'd expect to find the cure for the common cold. It is actually the recently incorporated holding company of a couple living in the beachside resort town of Carmel, California, far from any science labs. Victoria Knight, a school teacher, and Rider McDowell, an aspiring script writer, needed to overcome consumers' healthy skepticism that these two people might not have the scientific credentials to assess, let alone develop, a medication that has so far eluded armies of brilliant biochemists. But the script writer, if nothing else, understood the TV audience he hoped to entertain, and in a stroke of brilliance he turned the problem upside down: turn their complete lack of qualification into a story that drives awareness, and diverts attention from the real question of efficacy.

And so the package, the web site, and the advertisements lead with the Amazing Fact that Airborne was CREATED BY A SCHOOL TEACHER! As any confidence artist knows, disclosing unflattering facts up front wins the target's trust.
"Created by a school teacher? Can you imagine? Really? Who'd have thought a school teacher would invent the miraculous cure for the common cold? How amazing!"
These are the comments I heard bounced around among people I know on the that first day I heard about this miracle cure. The school teacher story was so far-fetched that it actually accelerated brand awareness!
And sure enough, each consumer convinced himself or herself that Airborne works, based on selective anecdotal data. "I used it last week and I didn't get sick!" "I took it too late to stop my last cold--next time I'll take it sooner." "Everyone says it works."

Clinical Results
So I examined the product they gave me. Nothing on the package (especially the inventor's credentials) impressed me, but I did become hopeful when I read the words
"See Clinical Results on our Web Site"
I did check out the site and here's what I found (in tiny hard-to-read print):

The FAA estimates 600 MILLION PEOPLE pass through American airports each year. A recent government survey identified “unhealthy air” and nausea as the leading concerns of airline customers.

Workers within our highly technological society now spend close to 90% of their time indoors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that our exposure to pollution may be as much as five times greater indoors than outdoors!
Best selling Airborne formula was created by a second grade school teacher. 100% satisfaction guaranteed.

Wha?? What's the connection between the US EPA's report and the school teacher? Evidently, plenty of readers seem to miss the non sequitur, inferring from the proximity of the sentences that the school teacher's invention cures these plagues of pollution and airline nausea.
It is much easier to read the print on the order form for the growing product line, including the AIRBORNE Gummi Lozenges, the AIRBORNE Junior 3-Pack, and the Airborne SUPER DUPER COMBO FREQUENT FLYER Pack. And whether or not the stuff works, I've got to admit I find value-priced lemon-lime candies much more appealling than exercise and good diet.
Of course, the most convincing reason to trust Airborne is prominently positioned at the top of the home page:

“Look, Airborne is great. I wouldn't go on a movie set without it; it's on my plane and in my house.” -Kevin Costner, Hollywood, CA

Now really, how can 40,000 consumers, and Kevin Costner, be wrong? But still I wanted to see those clinical results and I just couldn't find any. I used the Contact form to ask for a pointer to the clinical data, and here is the reply I received:

From: Consumer Support []
Sent: Mon 3/20/2006 5:25 AM
To: David Cowan
Subject: RE: Comments from the web site
Thank you for your inquiry. 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. Thank you for your interest in Airborne. Please
us know if you have additional questions.

Have a great day and stay healthy!
A small study for a small company? Are Airborne users really so naive as to buy the claim that companies with more revenue must conduct larger studies to be valid? And which usage recommendation was inconsistent with the "methodology (protocol)" -- perhaps the instruction to use it at the first sign of cold, or was it the instruction to Repeat Every Three Hours As Necessary? So much for those "very strong results" the package promised me.
According to the ABC News Good Morning America interview story:
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.
"I would not define that then as a clinical trial," Kroll [a pharmacologist at Duke University Medical School] said.
Airborne insists the results are valid, but the company is removing all references to the study from its Web site and packaging.
"We found that it confused consumers," Donahue said. "Consumers are really not scientifically minded enough to be able to understand a clinical study."
And there it is--Knight McDowell Labs' strategy summed up by its CEO on Good Morning America. We consumers just aren't smart enough to follow all that science mumbo jumbo anyway. Who needs it?

No Miracle Cure
Airborne is obviously not the only healthcare scam out there. (For an excellent rundown of homeopathy, reflexology, faith-healers, holistic therapy, diet fads, alternative cancer treatments, etc., read The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America or check out the blogroll on Quack Files.) The FDA can rigorously enforce scientific standards and disclosures, but when Americans fail to comprehend the basic principles of the scientific method, the FDA cannot protect them from snake oil salesmen.
Simply chasing down false claims by liars like Knight McDowell Labs is a quick fix that ultimately fails. The packaging and web sites adapt to each demand, without a hitch in sales.
Unfortunately, curing this disease requires far more slow and expensive therapy--namely, better science education. (Hmm, now I wonder who might not want our children to think like scientists?) I'm not even talking about chemistry and physics. I mean a simple, new curriculum that introduces high school students to why and how science works--every day of our lives.
In other words, the real cure to the disease of quackery truly will be created by a school teacher!
Updates: Scientific American features this blog post in an article submitted as evidence of deceptive advertising against Airborne, leading to a $23m judgment against the company!

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  1. Anonymous10:53 PM

    Thanks for the article. Just last week I went out to lunch with a colleague and saw that ridiculous product at the local supermarket in Palo Alto. The statement "invented by a school teacher", is as dumb as it gets: imagine get heart surgury from your plumber, or financial advice from your mechanic... how can people be so mindless?

    1. Probably because scientists have invented their own dangerious quackery.

  2. Anonymous7:03 AM

    It seems the entire world has gone mad over this stuff.. I started sneezing the other day and then had to listen to everyone explain to me why I should go buy Airborne.. So now it doesn't just cure colds, but allergies as well.. My oh my.

    On the other hand, it's not necessarily a bad thing to have people taking vitamin c a couple times a day. Might be more more expensive than orange juice, but still.

  3. The first person to try Airborne in my family was my husband. He works in retail and comes in to contact with a lot of people and their kids. He swears by the stuff and I was like whatever.

    He actually got me to try some when I had a cold and didn't feel like running to Walgreens for something else. To my surprise, I did feel better. Sneezing, runny nose coughing even mild body aches, were gone and did not come back. I've used it again since that first incident and I've never had to take more than a second dose.

    My mother has MS and takes a lot of prescription meds. She gets cold symptoms often and has to be very careful if she takes anything over the counter. Airborne doesn't affect her meds and it helps her cold symptoms every time.

    It may make outlandish claims and honestly it doesn't taste all that great (it's like a fruity version of Alka Seltzer without the aspirin backwash) but as for me and mine it works. I should also say that this is for mild cold symptoms and you have to catch it early! Wait too long and you're stuck. It's also not going to cure the flu or a really bad cold but it can help with the icky, uncomfortable feeling that the common cold brings.

    So, count us part of the 40,000. It's just something you have to experience. I wouldn't say it "cures" a cold but it sure is better than a lot of over the counter remedies and works faster and longer.

    I'm glad you're back blogging. I missed reading your posts while you took your brief vacation.

    One last thing: tag, you're it.

  4. Anonymous9:06 AM

    Finally, someone took the time to debunk the Airborne myth. No question it's a thinly veiled scam. Because it's a supposed cure for colds and flu (?)--and created by a school teacher--everyone seems to give it a free pass.

    Want to talk about healthcare scams? How about Heightmax? This stuff supposedly will make you GROW TALLER. I wrote ONE blog post about it last year (on my blog) and even today, 30% of my blog traffic is from searches on...HEIGHTMAX!

  5. It is everyone's inability (lack of interest) to exercise and stay healthy that creates a subtle paranoia and further encourages us to believe in any thing that can bring us relief. Every day I hear reference to 10-12 medicines at work, home or any public place. Everyone seems to be either dependent or far worse addicted to medicine instead of taking a look at themselves and say maybe it is not that hard to stay healthy.

    Like my ex used to say I know a doctor who would give a shot and make you feel better instantly. I was like maybe you were bound to feel better irrespective of the shot. She still swears to this day his shots work everytime.

  6. Anonymous2:37 PM

    While I would agree that they use some very questionable marketing practices, I have actually used the product during the past 8 months and found it to be very effective, at least for me.

    I usually get 2-3 really bad colds each winter. At least one of those is bad enough that I have to go to a doctor and get strong antibiotics because the cold has gone to my chest. This year, I did not have any bad colds at all. While that is purely anecdotal, I am a happy customer. Your mileage may vary.

    1. Anonymous7:34 AM

      If the product actually worked, why would they need to use deceptive marketing practices. This means you were suckered in by the marketing, even though you know it is deceptive.

      I am not sure what the term for this would be.

  7. Anonymous7:20 PM

    I don't really understand your concern. The product has offers "100% Guaranteed Satisfaction" which I assume means that you can return it for a refund if your unhappy with it. Maybe the vitamins in Airborne are helpful; maybe they're not. Who cares?

    The statement that the "product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease" is required to put on there by the government. If the company decided to try have the product evaluated by the FDA, it might very well turn out that there are no significant results from using the product, but if the product did actually help prevent or cure the cold, it would have to cost many times what it does now to recoup the costs of such testing and approval.

    If people like their vitamin C to be fizzy, so be it.

    1. Anonymous7:40 AM

      Who cares? If people think the magic pill will cure their illness instead of seeking actual medical treatment, people should care.

  8. Robert, spare us the anecdotal data. Your report is plagued with selective memory and experimental bias. There's a reason for conducting double blind studies with control populations and statistically significant data points.

    And Christian, if the product really worked, Knight McDowell Labs would shell out the bucks to prove it. A scientifically proven cold cure would sell even better.

    You ask Who Cares? When people put their faith in snake oil, they naturally neglect the more difficult precautions like hand hygiene, exercise, full night's sleep, no-smoking and diet. Even if you value the vitamin C, Airborne customers unnecessarily forfeit their hard-earned savings to Knight McDowell Labs.

    On Amazon, Airborne pills ( , which have 1000 mg of Vitamin C, cost 67 cents per pill. Swanson Vitamin C ( with the same 1000 mg costs a penny and a half per pill. So is Airborne 42 times as expensive because it also has Sorbitol and Sucralose??

  9. I totally agree that schools should do a better job in teaching about the scientific method...also formal logic (which I believe used to be covered under the heading of "rhetoric") and elementary statistical inference. People need to know the elements of these things in order to make sane decisions at work, in personal life, and in public policy matters.

    I think the only real way to learn the scientific method, though, is in conjunction with an actual substantive discipline...otherwise, it will be lost in a fog of verbiage and abstractions.

  10. I guess my comments about Airborne actually working aren't going to get approved.

    Well I have two comments about the scientific method. Even though we have all kinds of technology and such, it's only recently that we understand the scientific reason behind how the bumblebee flies. My mother has MS and takes a shot every week of a medicine calls Avonex. They know that it slows the progress of MS but Avonex was developed to treat another disease and they don't really understand WHY it helps MS patients they just know that it does.

    I don't know how or why Airborne works scientifically. I don't know why you're so dead set on proving that it doesn't work at all.

    The only way to find out is to have a cold, take it and see if you feel better and if your symptoms subside. Knocking it before you try it seems to me as useless as you claim Airborne to be.

    By the way, tag, you're it.

  11. Anonymous1:19 PM

    This is too tempting to pass up... I will respond on a more serious not later.

    Practicing the Art of Pitchcraft by Airborne

    1. Show Some Leg Right Away

    Sales have topped $100 million after several consecutive years of doubling revenues.
    Now really, how can 40,000 consumers, and Kevin Costner, be wrong?

    2. Don’t Make Them Think Too Hard


    3. Science Not Allowed In The Elevator

    What Airborne does is it helps your body build a healthy immune system.
    When you have a healthy immune system, then it allows your body, on its own, to fight off germs.

    4. Establish Credibility. Name Dropping Allowed



  12. Anonymous1:58 PM

    As Christian G. Warden stated, the government requires this labeling on such a product. In fact, anything that is herbal or natural cannot make any health claims, or it will be labeled a drug and be regulated by the FDA, or pretty much be taken off the shelves.

    Maybe you should consider picking on the drug industry, government, and doctors for producing, funding and distributing synthetic drugs for profit that don't help, but actually hurt people. There's some science for ya.

    I have not looked into what AirBorne actually is but I doubt it is anywhere near the top of the list of this world's problems.

  13. Anonymous2:15 PM

    ok, now i have gone to the Airborne site and read the ingredients, and also i read your post more carefully.

    It is not lack of science knowledge that is the problem with Americans, and people in general. It is the desire for a quick fix and the lack of personal responsibility for our health.

    All one has to do is read ingredients of a product, do a quick search on the internet, and decide if that is something they wish to consume.

    Your quibble should be more about the ingredients of this product than marketing strategy. Airborne contains Sucralose, (aka Splenda, aka sugar and chlorine mess), along with some other artificial ingredients, not good for health.

    Bottom line is that the drug industry, the FDA, and most doctors in this country are directly tied and corrupt.

    It is our tendency to question the more natural products that are "unregulated" because we trust the FDA, our doctors, and the drug industry. Sadly, they are not there to protect us. We just need to be more aware. Thank you, THE END! :)

  14. Anonymous12:41 PM

    This is not only a scam, but a potentially dangerous one at that.

    The amount of Vitamin A in each tablet is 5000 IU. According to the National Academy of Sciences, as discussed in a recent magazine article, and FDA guidelines, if taken according to the Airborne website's directions "every 3 hours as necessary," that much Vitamin A could be toxic - enough to cause possible liver disease, dizziness and blurred vision.

    Harmless placebo? Apparently not.

  15. Anonymous4:51 PM

    "When people put their faith in snake oil, they naturally neglect the more difficult precautions like hand hygiene, exercise, full night's sleep, no-smoking and diet."

    You have something against survival of the fittest?

    "Even if you value the vitamin C, Airborne customers unnecessarily forfeit their hard-earned savings to Knight McDowell Labs."

    My wife forfeits our hard-earned money when she buys the $150 jeans instead of the $30 ones. I do likewise when I pass the Folger's coffee by.

  16. Anonymous 215:

    "It is our tendency to question the more natural products that are "unregulated" because we trust the FDA, our doctors, and the drug industry. Sadly, they are not there to protect us. "

    You can't blame the FDA. The FDA does force Airborne to disclose that its product does NOTHING to prevent colds. What else can they do? Until people arm themselves with knowledge about how science works, they will be exploited.


    See 2 anonynous comments preceding yours to see why airborne isn't as harmless as like a pricy pair of jeans.

    Anonymous 119,

    Clever! of course, a good pitch is necessary, but not sufficient, to build a real business. Indeed, a good pitch is all Knight McDowell has.

    Sadly, it still appears to be a good investment. But my partners and investor find life way too short to profit from empty or exploitive ventures. (That's why we passed on all those profitable desktop adware startups.)


  17. Anonymous 1:19pm,

    One more thing...

    "I have not looked into what AirBorne actually is but I doubt it is anywhere near the top of the list of this world's problems."

    Airborne itself is certainly not at the root of our world's biggest problems. But the shortage of scientific thinking in this world is what exposes mindless mobs to exploitation, jihad, famine, Biblical crusades and war.

    If only sniffles were the worst of our problems!

  18. Anonymous11:21 AM

    Brilliant post, David.

    PT Barnum recognized that "there's a sucker born every minute". The idiom "A fool and his money are soon parted" no doubt preceded Barnum by many years or decades.

    My point is that snake oil salesmen who skate at the very edge of dishonesty are not new to this world. It's just that in a scientific age, the scams tend to have a more scientific veneer to them. Little else changes.

  19. That Deborah girl wrote: Well I have two comments about the scientific method. Even though we have all kinds of technology and such, it's only recently that we understand the scientific reason behind how the bumblebee flies. ...

    Your second sentence is not related to the scientific method at all. The scientific method is about coming up with a hypothesis, making predictions based on that hypothesis, and using experimentation to prove or disprove those predictions. Read the Wikipedia entry for more.

    Applied to medicines, the scientific method requires running double-blind experiments to measure the effect (if any) of the medicine. Airborne has not done this (except for a sham study set up by the company). If you don't do a well-designed double-blind experiment, you simply have no idea if the medicine works or not.

  20. Anonymous9:35 PM

    hm. Advertizing... and you're surprized?!

    It's not about scientific thinking, and your cultures lack of teaching it. It's about thinking, period, and your cultures lack of it. To one who does the odd bit of thinking (and I address this to all who apply) none of this could possibly be surpising. Saddening, perhaps...

  21. Anonymous1:28 PM

    I agree with everything you said. But I still use it when I get on a plane. I have always thought that Vit C was helpful, and the bubbles are energizing. I also wash my hands a lot. I started a new job recently and several people had colds, sneezing and coughing. I washed my hands, took Airborne and extra Vit C, tried to get enough sleep. Don't know which of the combination did it, but I didn't get sick, it didn't cost much, so I will do it again.

  22. Anonymous8:36 PM

    Vitamin A - 5000 IU
    Toxic? According to "their" studies, sure. But it depends on alot of things. What are the vitamin A levels in your body to begin with? Everyone is different. Being that Vit-A is natural, your body gets rid of the excess. Try it with Vit-C if you want. Take a whole whack of Vit-C tablets. When you urinate, it will be VERY orange because your body doesnt need it all. Even if your body DIDN'T expell the excess, there are the other vitamins in the mix. Is 5000IU of Vit-A still toxic when combined with B, B6, B12, C? Did their studies take that into account?

    Here's a little tidbit that may open some possibilities: Sodium is volatile, and highly toxic. Chlorine is also extremely toxic. But what happens when you put them together? Table salt! Harmless unless you take it by the cup full, like my wife does.... Ahh, science.

  23. Anonymous9:00 PM

    Sorry, one other thing.

    This is to Shadox:
    Just because a man is not a high-paid chemist working for a drug compamy, doesn't mean he doesn't know alot about nutrition and health. True there are alot of idiot teachers who only know what is written in their textbooks, but there are briliant teachers. There are briliant plumbers. There are briliant car mechanics. There are briliant garbage men.

    Don't judge a man's abilities and intelligence on his profession. Judge him on his deeds.

  24. Anonymous5:53 PM

    Beware of those who mock the whistle blower and 'kindly' state how they were positively affected by the scam product. You here this crap all the time at, the issue is that you really don't know if they are really lying on some products unless YOU tried it yourself.


    It is also interesting that you would say that you get hits from people searching for the scam. If they go to you before they buy the product and READ, and turn away from the product then good for you man.

    I posted about Stores Online 'scam'. The issue with their product is that it isn't really a scam as it is perfectly legal. It is just overly expensive for material they either got for less than a percent of the price they are charging.

    You can still scam people, even if nothing you do is technically illegal.

  25. Anonymous5:44 AM

    Ah, the power of the placebo effect.

  26. Anonymous3:36 PM

    I find taking zinc tablets and eating applesa and drinking orange juice as well as making sure i have green vegetables with me meal everynight and staying away from fast food has made me healthier. I am a prek teacher so you can imagine the colds that go around and keeping up on that and vitamins and I dont catch the colds as often.

  27. Anonymous7:40 AM

    It's all about Mind Over Matter. The question is, "Do the facts matter, so long as it works for you?"

    In the Occult world this advertising tactic is of the lesser black magick variety. Just as you pointed out about the magician's tricks, the magic is in the mind.

    Just like anxiety and fear, if someone is convinced they can't do something, then they can't. They have to put forth faith in something to obtain it.

    The bottomline arguement behind all of this is about the ethics in the tactic. What if it works because you believe it does? Does it matter then that you've been tricked? Is it really "being tricked" if they're essentially saying it works and then it does work for you? Is it wrong to believe what you want and obtain it?

    It's the placebo effect. It'll work for awhile and die out when the trend dies down.

    Koodos to those artists behind this product. They succeeded in giving hope to others. Yet all the same it can be said... shame on them for playing a big trick on us all.

  28. Anonymous8:29 AM

    Well, I'm the last one to believe in hocus-pocus but I have to say for the years before taking Airborne every time I got around my sniffling nephews, or relatives I ended up with a cold or sinus issue. Since taking Airborne over the last 2 years - nada...I've been around friends, relatives, children...not a sniffle, not a sneeze. Isn't it possible that some herbs just work better on some than others?

  29. Anonymous

    Of course it's possible for herbs to have positive health effects. But the only way to know whether Airborne's particular recipe has any such effect is to test it in a clinical study. Your own anecdotal data are completely vulnerable to selective memory, lack of controls (how do you know you would have gotten sick without it?) and placebo effect. Only double blind, statistically significant studies generate results you should believe. If Airborne really worked, why wouldn't the company submit its claims to the FDA for testing and approval?

  30. Anonymous7:02 AM

    I made a mistake of taking airborne one morning on an empty stomach with a usual multi-vitamin and proceeded to have blurred vision for the first time in my life. After drinking fluids it went away in about 1 hour. I wanted to mention this to anyone out there. I suspect that it had something to do with the vitamin A in the mult-vite combined with the vitamin A in the Airborne tablet. I have decided to not take Airborne any longer and probably limit the number of multi-vites too.

  31. This is for TBar.

    You suggest that the FDA and clinical trials can't be trusted to determine whether a drug is safe. And I won't disagree that there have been cases where FDA-approved drugs turn out to be dangerous.

    But you then offer us a "tidbit" to convince us of your case... stating that the combination of two toxic substances creates a beneficial substance.

    This just proves your lack of knowledge of chemistry. When two pure elements are combined by a chemical reaction, they form a "compound" that is IN NO WAY RELATED to the original elements (think Hydrogen + Oxygen = Water).

    The MIXTURE of herbs and vitamins found in Airborne are not chemically combined to form something new... each part of the formulation retains its own benefits and risks.

    Whether Airborne provides relief for a particular person isn't really relevant (the effect might be due to the formula or the placebo effect). What is relevant is that the same ingredients can be had for significantly less cost.

  32. Anonymous11:26 AM

    In regards to Airborne working for people read about the placebo effect.

    Also there is an old saying in science that "correlation does not always necessarily mean causation". In other words for those people that have taken vitamin C, Airborne, said a prayer, did a rain dance or whatever when they felt a cold coming on and didn't get the cold. The reason they didn't get the cold was not necessarily caused by their doing X thing (taking Airborne, wearing a gas mask, etc).

    Think people, think, and as Public Enemy once said "don't believe the hype!".

    goodnight and goodluck

  33. Anonymous2:29 PM

    Watch out for Vitamin-A overdose! 5 doses of Airborne will put you at five times the daily recomended value which is two-and-a-half times the daily [safe] upper limit. fyi

  34. Anonymous3:33 PM

    This blog is a great exmaple of why Aitborne sells so well--people *want* to be stupid and will defend with their last breath their right to be ignorant.

  35. Anonymous2:38 AM

    I formally requested information from this company too. I'm hoping that by explaining to them that some consumers are actually "Scientifically minded", that maybe I can review their data.

    I just found it amazingly insulting that the CEO would say that most consumers aren't scientifically minded enough to understand the clinical trial. The product was made by a SECOND GRADE SCIENCE TEACHER, not a molecular biochemist. They proudly tout this fact, and yet America doesn't have the marbles to understand a second grade science teacher?

    That pissed me off so much. How dumb to they think I, their potential consumer, am?

    I'm going to make a pill stuffed with tobacco and sell it to 18+ year olds, but claim that it "alleviates future aches, pains and other ailments associated with advanced age or the process of aging." That statement is totally recognized by the FDA. It's still legal in America to allow consumers to give themselves cancer right?

    I can see Big Tobacco and Momma Pharma dancing around a big pile of money now.

  36. Anonymous3:13 PM

    Here are the Clinical Trial Results from the April 2003 version of the Airborne website, courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine:

  37. Anonymous10:15 PM

    I am no doctor. But...
    The first thing that put me on my guard about this product is the disclaimer that the product and statements made about the product were not evaluated by the FDA. So, since no one had regulated the product, I decided to research it myself.

    Vitamin A - 5000 IU
    Vitamin C - 1000 mg
    Vitamin E - 30 IU
    Magnesium - 40 mg
    Zinc - 8 mg
    Selenium - 15 mcg
    Manganese - 3 mg
    Potassium - 75 mg
    Herbal Extracts* - 350 mg
    Amino Acids** - 50 mg

    *Herbal Extracts are Lonicera, Forsythia, Schizoepta, Ginger, Chinese Vitex, Isatis Root, Echinacea
    **Amino Acids are glutamine and lysine; glutamine is nonessential, lysine is essential

    Nothing seems terribly wrong IN ONE DOSAGE. Each tablet contains a healthy dose of vitamin A, (of course) vitamin C, vitamin E, and minerals. All of the listed herbal extracts are common herbal remedies that have been used throughout the centuries. Glutamine and Lysine... also pretty standard.

    So what's the problem? The problem is their RECOMMENDED dosage of 1 tablet every three hours as necessary. Assuming someone actually tried this, they could take five tablets in a day. While this person would receive a dose of potassium that is roughly equivalent to that present in a medium banana, he/she would also be consuming dangerously high amounts of Vitamin A, and definitely more Vitamin C than anyone needs in a single day. If anyone is familiar with Accutane and its side-effects (which include birth defects and mental disorders, i.e. depression), a high dose of Vitamin A like that can have the same side-effects. There is no warning of this danger.

    So! No, this is not a cure for the common cold-- they never said it was. Sure, the advertising strongly suggests that, since the consumer is told to "take at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering a crowded environment." However, the disclaimer on the back stating that Airborne "is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease," told me otherwise. Yes, I did actually read the fine print before I ever purchased the product-- I don't trust things without FDA approval. This is just a DIETARY SUPPLEMENT in a nifty effervescent tablet. It is certainly not bad for you, and is probably good for replenishing your body with the vitamins and minerals necessary for a properly functioning immune system... if you take only ONE TABLET A DAY. The true danger is in the dosage suggestion of "every three hours as necessary." No one knows what that means (as necessary?), and when someone is thrown into severe depression due to a Vitamin A overdose and doesn't know why... well that could be a fairly dangerous situation.

    Good job, school teacher, for having put out a good and tasty mix of dietary supplements. BAD JOB for suggesting such a high dosage and NOT GETTING FDA APPROVAL. For shame.

  38. Anonymous2:19 PM

    It's a sin that the FTC/FCC allows this kind of snake oil over the air. All about the bottom line, while the old, sick and ignorant are taken for a ride courtesy of the station owners.

    I suspect that there is a special place in hell for these exploiters. A shame there isn't a special place in jail for them in this greed-driven world.

  39. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I wanted to try this - skeptic that I am. I had bought it and luckily didn't need to use it until now. All the good OTC cold medicines have been pulled for stroke risk, no nothing helps me.

    I read the entire label and saw that it was nothing more than the vitamins and minerals that are said to boost the immune system. (Including Lysine which helps cold sores)

    So I continued and when you look at the Daily Value - at 100% on several and 1,670% on C, I knew immediately that the "every three hours" was way off. (So I take one a day and must say- the cold is progressing nicely and not hanging around like most in the past.)

    I don't take a daily vitamin, so I see this as a vitamin boost when I get a cold. 1 a day can't hurt.(But I am more educated than most to notice the danger on the dosing)

    Will I use it next time? Probably not - but i will probably take my multivitamin to give me the boost.

    THanks for the blog - I wanted someone else to be a skeptic too.....

  40. Anonymous1:04 AM

    Though I am not an advocate of blindly accepting product claims, I'm seriously irked by people's issues with the FDA warning and tendency to use it as "evidence" against a product. I question Airborne and many other remedies sold in such a manner, but the FDA warning is on virtually every herb and vitamin in a drug store. Pharmaceutical companies can afford to do big studies and create "drugs." Anything approved by the FDA to prevent or cure a disease is labeled a "drug" and anything else must carry that disclaimer. All dietary supplements carry the disclaimer by force of law. See

    I think your skepticism is good, but your credibility is harmed when you use as evidence a disclaimer that is actually on just about every supplement out there. The fact that you didn't acknowledge that in your post made me skeptical of your writing.

  41. Anonymous,

    I'm glad you're skeptical of my writing--please never stop.

    Airborne obfuscated the FDA warning through miniaturization, and pushed the envelope more than most in the way it claimed to be a "Miracle ColdBuster", and shrewdly crafted the Schoolteacher angle. You are right, though, that many other products are equally worthless and slimy.


  42. Anonymous9:36 AM

    I'm not a fan of marketing over merit, but I'm not going to crucify it for it. If that were the case, Airborne can get in line with hundreds of other "natural" products. What worries me is how willingly people will go by such products without knowing exactly what's in it from both a vitamin and herbal perspective. It's not just concentrated vitamin C, it's got 5000 IU of vitamin A! It's also got stuff like Chinese Vitex....any herbal content makes me pause - who regulates the purity of these herbs? Maybe it's great, maybe it's not. Maybe it's some crap grown in a puddle somewhere and is full of heavy metals? How do I know?

  43. Several posters correctly identify vitamin A overdose as extremely dangerous, but one true believer dismissed it with a reference to peeing out excess vitamin C. That is a VERY BAD analogy. Vitamins C and B are water-soluble. That means if you take more than you need, you'll just pee it out. (So, how can 1000% RDI have health effects if it just goes into the toilet?) On the other hand, vitamins A, D, E, and K are FAT-SOLUBLE, which means they don't dissolve well in water. The good news is I imagine that you won't actually absorb all that vitamin A if you take Airborne in a glass of water, because it's not water-soluble. The bad news is that you CANNOT pee out vitamin A; you just store the excess in your liver. Vitamin A toxicity is life-threatening, partly for this reason.

    On another note, why is it comforting to think that an herb has been "used for centuries?" Even if that's true, that makes me less likely to take it. People just a couple centuries ago only lived for 40 years... why would you think their drugs are any good compared to modern medicine?

  44. Excellent article, simply excellent.

    These scams should not be legal because they offer nothing and imply they offer a remedy. Fine print should not allow them to escape being a fraud.

  45. Anonymous2:30 PM

    I took one tab of Airborne the day before surgery. I feel so dumb...
    I had significant bleeding during surgery and another bleed one week later. No other medications or supplements had been taken. Bood tests prior to the surgery indicated all was within normal range. There is some "natural extract" in the product that had a thinning affect like asprin. It will take weeks for my condition to improve because of the bleeds. It could have been more serious had my doctor not been as compitant as he was. All natural does not mean healthy or appropriate for all who are taking dose only put me in a bad place.

  46. Anonymous1:49 PM

    No offence to anyone or anything, but after thoroghly looking through these I, a freshman student would be more worried about the effects and the fact that if someone like for example a 5 year old took some, may in fact die. So did you actually think through all of this? About other peoples lives? Next time PLEASE get it approved first by true doctors!!! Yours Truly.

  47. Anonymous3:59 PM

    I've always told my wife the Airborne claims were ridiculous. How could a teacher create something that scientists could not. Recently I went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. A day before the trip I came down with a bad cold. The first night in Mexico I drank several shots of tequila. Like many shots of tequila. I think this has happened before, but this solidified it for me. I sware, the alchohol cured me. From here on out, when I get a cold, I am going to drink a bottle of tequila.


  48. Anonymous7:31 AM


    Your comparison of Vitamin A and Vitamin C is EXTREMLY misleading and very dangerous!

    Vitamin C is water soluble. It is very easy for your kidneys to remove it. You will remove essentially all the Vitamin C you don't need in a day which is why it's effects on colds is so uncertain. It doesn't stay around long enough to do that much.

    Vitamin A is VERY different. It is a long chain fatty acid which is NOT water soluble. The kidneys have a very difficult time excreting it. It is only removed effectivly by the liver and therefore high concentrations can hurt that organ.

    This is why the RDA for vitamin C is 125 mg while the RDA for vitamin A is 800 Micrograms. In other words, you need 140 times more Vitamin C than Vitamin A.

  49. Anonymous9:18 PM

    You lay out some solid arguments until "The FDA can rigorously enforce scientific standards and disclosures, but when Americans fail to comprehend the basic principles of the scientific method, the FDA cannot protect them from snake oil salesmen." Um, yeah. Do we really have to list out all the ways the FDA is ineffective... Vioxx.

  50. Anonymous10:45 PM

    Good article!
    Man what a fight going on here.
    I still take AirBorne simply becomes my mom makes me.
    I caught a nasty cold once and my dad's friend introduced it to him.
    Now my mom tells me to take it all the time because it worked for HER!
    Never worked for me. Not once.
    Maybe because I didn't take it at the first symptom (well, I waited 2.5 seconds before dropping the tablet)? Or because I didn't take it every 180 minutes (maybe that's why I'm still alive and typing right now instead of being killed by vitamins)?
    You decide.

  51. Thank you for selecting the Airborne Class Action Settlement Claim Submission...

    A Settlement has been proposed in a class action lawsuit that alleges that Airborne Health, Inc. (and other defendants) (“Airborne”) falsely advertised certain therapeutic properties, including the ability to cure or prevent the common cold, when marketing products under the Airborne brand name, as listed below. Defendants deny any wrongdoing or illegal conduct but have agreed to settle the litigation. This website provides information on the lawsuit and proposed Settlement.

  52. Anonymous8:15 PM

    I haven't read the rest of the comments because I don't have the time but I DO have something to say. I don't care who made or created Airborne. I have been taking vitamins all my life and have been a distributer with one of the world's largest herbal companies. I have NEVER taken anything that actually prevented a cold consistently time after time like Airborne does. In the past if I ever got to the point of a sore throat I was doomed to have a cold lasting 2 weeks. I have been using Airborne (for a couple of years) at the first sign of a sore throat 3 times a day for 2 or 3 days and the sore throat and any other cold symptoms are gone! This stuff (for me anyway) is amazing and I hope they keep it on the market.

  53. Anonymous12:08 PM

    During the last several years, I've been increasingly convinced we're in an economic bubble. One of the signs of a bubble is the willingness of everyday people to waste large sums of money on fraudulent products without much thought or worry -- since money is flowing so freely.

    The success of Airborne and similar questionable products (e.g. HeadOn) would certainly point to a bubble over the last few years.

    I wonder how well these products will be doing in the impending recession, when money is very tight...

  54. Wow, HeadOn is a doozy. Makes Airborne look like penicillin.

    I must disagree with your theory that the propensity to embrace superstition rises with wealth. Just look at how religion thrives in the poorest times and places.

    Rather, I believe that the single most successful predictor is science education.

  55. Vitamin C and Zinc among other things that Airborne contains have unclear scientific evidence on their side. It does not necessarily prevent onset, but may help in certain cases. See this site for details.

  56. Anonymous2:49 AM

    now that is classic smoke and mirror marketing

  57. Anonymous10:26 PM

    "This blog is a great exmaple of why Aitborne sells so well--people *want* to be stupid and will defend with their last breath their right to be ignorant."

    Agreed. There are plenty of retards in the comments section here saying things like, "But OMG scientists don't understand how insects flap their wings!"

    Or, "You say it doesn't work, but I took it and didn't get a cold!"

    Or they somehow think because some FDA-approved medications turn out to be harmful, that has any bearing on whether or not a shrewd company is ripping them off with cleverly marketed "health" products.

    So maybe people who work hard to remain ignorant deserve to be ripped off. That's fine. Of larger concern to me is that those same people have a right to vote and to influence important decisions in this country.

  58. You would trust the FDA?????????! The administration that pumps out poisons with their recommendation all the????? I would try ANY and ALL natural means to get rid of any illness before I would trust them.

  59. Maybe people who work hard to remain ignorant deserve to be ripped off. That's fine. Of larger concern to me is that those same people have a right to vote and to influence important decisions in this country.

  60. "You say it doesn't work, but I took it and didn't get a cold!"

  61. Anonymous7:15 PM

    I guess for you a "cure" would have to be some toxic chemical that kills everything instead of natural remedies that improve your immune system.

  62. thanks to all these comments because I have learnt some things that I didn't know. And the article is awesome and very interesting.

  63. Excellent article, simply excellent.

    These scams should not be legal because they offer nothing and imply they offer a remedy. Fine print should not allow them to escape being a fraud.

  64. Maybe people who work hard to remain ignorant deserve to be ripped off. That's fine. Of larger concern to me is that those same people have a right to vote and to influence important decisions in this country.

  65. Anonymous8:20 AM

    When I think something is good for my husband, I tell a little white lie, that way he will listen! And, I also tell strangers that my partner of 17 years is my husband, because then I am respected. Its the mindset of America/world. I've read where parents will "hide" broccoli in Mac and cheese. What's the difference? It's all a lie. People need to ingest immune boosting foods/herbs. Give me natural over chemical any day. If this product helps people, so be it. You should send your resume off to the FBI, I heard they need a few good folks.

  66. Mik Pazula7:59 AM

    A few years back I came down with some sort of bacterial infection and the doctor wrote a script for Azithromycin. It did the job. Now I learn that the FDA, which approved the drug, has given it a black box warning. Same thing with Lyrica and do not forget the scandal with the cox-2 inhibitors and heart disease. I am in no way endorsing snake oil, but a little humility on the part of the science community would go a long way toward convincing the masses of their good intentions.

  67. Typical big business "debunker".
    A bunch of talk around the product but not one scratch about its efficacy. I'm not completely dismissing you, thanks for the info on the "lab" and the "study", I will look further into those. Please note, this is something you may want to change in this article. In the 2nd paragraph, you accuse the reader of being too stupid to understand scientific studies and then in the article you accuse the airborne people of assuming the same. If you want them to look bad you may not want to agree with them on this.

  68. I think suspect that there is a special place in hell for these exploiters. With that I recommend for sugar free Herbal Cold Drink Herbal Cold drink also.