Is “Airborne” effective against the common cold?

childYou can’t keep a good quack down for long. They keep resurfacing with irritating frequency. Victoria Knight-McDowell certainly doesn’t look like a quack. She looks like a pretty elementary school teacher. Which is exactly what she was before she became a millionaire peddling her invention. And what was that invention? A remedy for the common cold. Yup, this young grade two school teacher managed to accomplish a feat that had defied numerous highly trained researchers at the world’s top pharmaceutical companies. Or so she claims. Since the common cold is probably the most common disease in the world, responsible for countless days lost from work every year, you can imagine the potential profits were a remedy to be found. It’s no surprise then that Big Pharma has invested heavily in cold research, unfortunately with not much to show in return. But our lovely school teacher put together a concoction of ginger, Echinacea, zinc, isatis root and vitamin C, calling it “Airborne”. How did she come up with this? Experiments in the lab? Controlled trials? No. She did a little reading about cold remedies. All these ingredients have been investigated for their role in altering the human immune response with unimpressive results. Zinc lozenges have been around a long time and have not proven to be the answer to the common cold. Ditto Echinacea and vitamin C. Victoria lumped these together in one product and adorned the box of Airborne with the slogan “created by a school teacher.” She successfully parlayed this charming notion into a hundred million dollars a year business. After all, surely a school teacher can be trusted. Well, maybe to teach your children how to read, but not to keep them from catching a cold.

Now, though, the teacher has been caught. Cheating the public is the charge. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the U.S. agency that regulates advertising,. has decreed that Airborne is falsely advertised because there is no evidence that it can “boost your immune system to help your body combat germs” or that taking it a the first sign of cold symptoms or before entering crowded, potentially germ-infested environments is of any benefit. FTC was acting after a group of citizens launched a private lawsuit against Airborne claiming the product did not live up to its promise. Airborne agreed to a settlement whereby the company would pay thirty million dollars to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, offer refunds to anyone who asked, and would desist from making unsubstantiated claims about reducing the risk of catching a cold colds, reducing the severity or duration of colds or offering protection against infection in crowded places. So you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But you can fool lots. Airborne has weathered the storm and is very much alive, using a clever new ad. “Airborne is #1, and if you’ve used it you know. If you haven’t ask someone who has.” Legal but meaningless. A cold usually lasts a week. If you take Airborne I suspect it may last seven days. Maybe the school teacher needs more than a thirty million dollar wrap on the knuckles.


Joe Schwarcz

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