Company Now Under Scrutiny By FTC & 24 State Attorneys General
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. The company will pay for ads in Better Homes & Gardens, Parade, People, Newsweek, and many other magazines and newspapers instructing consumers how to get refunds.
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.
But in 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. Next, in 2007, the Federal Trade Commission and a group of state attorneys general began investigating the various “cold busting” claims that Airborne has made since its launch in 1999. Those investigations are continuing.
Airborne’s basic formula contains Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as other nutrients common in multivitamins; the amino acids glutamine and lysine, and an “herbal extract proprietary blend.” CSPI cautions that Airborne may provide too much vitamin A, since just two pills provide 10,000 IU—the maximum safe level for a day—and the package directs customers to take three per day. In addition to several flavors of the original formula, other Airborne products include “Power Pixies,” an artificially sweetened powder version for children; Airborne Seasonal, which is described as a “non-drowsy formula containing a nutritional blend which promotes normal histamine levels”; Airborne On-the-Go; and Airborne Nighttime.
“There’s no credible evidence that what’s in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment,” said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt, who reviewed Airborne’s claims. “Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.”
Consumers seeking refunds for purchases of Airborne can obtain a claim form by writing to the Airborne Class Action Settlement Administrator, PO Box 1897, Faribault, MN 55021-7152, calling 1-888-952-9080.
The class plaintiff was represented by California law firms which asked the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest’s litigation project to join as co-counsel in late 2006 for its expertise in nutrition and labeling lawsuits. U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips of the Central District of California gave preliminary approval to the settlement on November 29.
“This was a great opportunity for CSPI to participate in a major lawsuit against one of the biggest supplement frauds in the country,” said CSPI’s Litigation Director Stephen Gardner.
Created in 2005, CSPI’s litigation unit has successfully negotiated settlements that have resulted in improved food marketing and labeling practices. In June, CSPI struck a settlement agreement with Kellogg that resulted in nutrition standards for the foods that company markets to young children. CSPI has negotiated settlements that resulted in improved labeling or marketing of products made by Frito-Lay, Pinnacle Foods, Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats and others. CSPI is currently pursuing litigation against Coca-Cola over its so-called “calorie burning” drink Enviga; Burger King, over its use of artificial trans fat; and Anheuser-Busch and Miller over their illegal marketing of alcoholic “energy” drinks.