Fake cold remedy Airborne settles lawsuit -- get your cash back

The company that made "Airborne," -- a supposed remedy for colds -- have settled a lawsuit brought by customers who were upset to learn that the "clinical trials" that proved that it worked were faked. If you bought any of this snake-oil, you can get some money back:
Under the agreement, a special Web site was created here to accept claims from customers, who have spent far more than $23.3 million on the range of Airborne products, from Airborne On-the-Go and Airborne Nighttime to Airborne Gummi and Airborne Power Pixies, which is sweetened for children...

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.

Link (Thanks, Barry!)


  1. It’s worth it just for the placebo effect. At least for hypochondriacs like me. But I’ll still apply for the refund.

  2. isn’t Airborne supposed to be a cold remedy, not a cure for jetlag? when my mom and i went to Egypt seven years ago, we took this homeopathic stuff for jetlag, but that was most likely just a placebo.

  3. i thought Airborne was for cold prevention, not jetlag…. when my mom and i went to Egypt seven years ago, we took this homeopathic stuff (that tasted like sugar) for jetlag, and i’m pretty sure that was a placebo.

  4. If you look at the packaging, it appears to be focused on both colds and air travel, particularly take-this-before-a-flight-so-you-don’t-get-sick-or-jetlagged, but most people just take it to try to prevent colds more generally. I suspect there may have been some mission creep as to what the product was actually for.

    I always did find it funny that they emphasized the “designed by a school teacher” aspect. Do you really want school teachers designing health/medical supplements?

    I’ve tried a number of cold remedies, usually at others’ behest, and I personally feel the most improvement with Celestial Seasoning’s echinacea tea (the one with the caped tea-drinking koala on the front.) It may be partly placebo, I don’t know, but at least there is more empirical support for echinacea as a cold preventative than there is for most of the “known” remedies like vitamin C.

  5. Jet lag, colds, influenza, heart disease, cancer…
    Folks, it’s a placebo. That means that it’s equally effective at curing whatever you want it to cure.

    Which of course means that it doesn’t do a damn thing. If you thought otherwise, you’ve been had.

  6. Which of course means that it doesn’t do a damn thing.

    Don’t diss the placebo.

    “Generally, one third of a control group taking a placebo shows improvement and Harvard’s Herbert Benson says that the placebo effect yields beneficial clinical results in 60–90% of diseases, including angina pectoris, bronchial asthma, herpes simplex, and duodenal ulcers.”

  7. Which of course means that it doesn’t do a damn thing.

    Don’t diss the placebo.

    “Generally, one third of a control group taking a placebo shows improvement and Harvard’s Herbert Benson says that the placebo effect yields beneficial clinical results in 60–90% of diseases, including angina pectoris, bronchial asthma, herpes simplex, and duodenal ulcers.”

  8. I can’t speak to their medicinal properties, but Airborne tablets do wonders in alcoholic refreshments.

  9. Hmm. Wouldn’t go through even once, yet showed up twice. The software is crabby tonight.

  10. Like I said on Consumerist:
    I filled out the form knowing I ate the stuff during college because of the claims and the fact that every drugstore (even small locally-owned co-ops) carried them. I got sick anyway like usual but assumed that’s the way things go. I guess you really can’t trust decent tasting ‘medicines’. In the FAQ’s it reminds you that the settlement hasn’t even been approved yet..that is due to come in June of this year. And then it lets you know that there will probably be appeals filed by the company and that appeals sometimes take years. Ah well, at least I don’t live on an oil-covered coast in Alaska.

  11. i’m trying to imagine an Airborne cocktail.

    The grapefruit flavor, with Absolut Mandrin and a squeeze of lime juice. Shake with ice, scrape the iridescent, oily foam off the top and serve in a chilled cocktail glass with a lime wedge.

  12. It’s not under the aegis of the FDA, and it’s a false advertising claim, so FCC is closer to the truth.

  13. Hey, did anyone else get a massive allergic reaction to this Airborne crap? I got hives on every inch of my body for three weeks… They actually lasted longer, but it took 3 weeks for me to stop getting new ones. It was terrible, and between my toes. I’m pleased to be getting my $15 bucks back, but I feel like they owe me more for all the money I lost while I became the most horrifying model in North America. My doctor told me it’s very common and called airborne something like “a random cocktail of obscure herbs and spurious medical claims.”
    Oh, and I still got jetlag and a cold. I hate them.

    Rant aside, can anyone tell me why it’s not under FDA jurisdiction?

    1. Same thing just happened to me! I’m itching like mad right now after 4 doses of Airborne in 2 days, online to do a search to see if this was a normal reaction!

  14. Dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, apparently being neither Food nor Drug.

    Did you take pictures?

  15. I never bought it or used it, and it always seemed a little sketchy to me (“Created by a teacher!” So?) but I always liked it, if only for the Lloyd Dangle art on the box.

  16. Actually, I rather liked the flavor of the original Airborne…kind of like Tang or flat orange soda. :]

  17. Airborne is an exact duplicate product of Emergen-C, which has been on the market for years. Their are no false health claims on Emergen-C’s packaging, other than “Super Energy Booster”. They are great pick-me-ups on a sick day, and the megadose of Vitamin C is a great immune booster. I take one of them once or twice a week, but have never tried the sugar-infused Airborne.

  18. I’ve taken the generic store-brand Airborne product several times without a third eye sprouting forth. It seemed to stave off a cold once or twice with just one dose. It is like Alka-Seltzer with extra vitamins.

    Used Zicam in the past and I lost most of my sense of smell but that’s another lawsuit to pursue.

  19. dn’t nd n clncl trls t knw tht fw shts f whsky cr ny cld…r t lst gt m nc slc f slpy p.

  20. Based upon the name and the box art, I assumed it was a tablet that gave me the ability to pass along airborne contagions to others while out in the world, thereby slowly thinning the crowds at commute time and on airplanes. So yeah, I’m on board with the false advertising thing–I took it for weeks to no avail. Though I did not catch a cold, I would note.

  21. I travel a lot and I used to take Airborne before each flight. It was like a reglious thing- the holy trinity of germ defense at the airport: Anti-bacterial gel, Airborne, and bottled water. I’m sure it was all psychological but I’d feel better knowing I had armed myself as best I could against other people.

    I know. I’m sad.

  22. See? Cold remedy! Airtravelbadness preventative! Cold preventative! None of the above! It’s all these things, and less!

    My grandma used to take Carter’s Little Liver Pills. Same difference.

  23. @43: I’m still not sold on the cynicism. Whether they fudged research or not, taking Airborne is pretty much the same things doctors have been telling me for years to help keep colds away: take a multivitamin with a vitamin C supplement. If anything, Airborne is better than a pill, since it’s easier for your body to absorb.

    Basically, if it works for people, what’s the problem?

  24. it’s funny, i was just talking about another big snake oil product yesterday- remember breath assure? we wondered what had ever happened to it, and the story is pretty funny, the FDA banned them from saying that:

    “It works. It provides users with clean breath. It lasts and lasts on the toughest offenders: Pizza, garlic, onions, spicy foods, coffee and more. It cleans bad breath for hours. It usually lasts four to six hours or until the next time you eat something that might produce bad breath. It gives you clean fresh breath for hours from the inside out. It will help stop morning breath as well as bad breath caused by garlic, onions, pizza, coffee and other foods. It is an “internal breath freshener.” It is guaranteed to give you clean fresh breath for hours. It works with the digestive system, often the cause of offensive breath. It is “America’s number one selling breath freshener.” It lasts for hours. Guaranteed to give clean fresh breath for hours. Swallow with liquid after eating or any time you want the confidence of fresh breath. It will stop bad breath caused by the foods you eat. Use it any time you want clean breath. It works from the inside out. It cleans your breath naturally from the inside out. It took a team of researchers five years to develop this unique secret formulation and blending process. It is a breath freshener. It is designed to fight bad breath caused by foods.”

    that’s a direct quote, full story here:

    funny stuff.

  25. Just want to echo the comments in support of the placebo.

    There are actually quite a lot of studies in which placebos are MORE effective than the treatment. The mind is a powerful force.

  26. no kidding:

    “The active ingredients in BreathAsure are said to be parsley seed and sunflower oils. BreathAsure-D, also said to aid digestion, contains these ingredients plus ginger, chamomile, and true licorice. Warner-Lambert’s suit charged that taking BreathAsure capsules with water is no more effective in fighting bad breath than drinking water alone.”

  27. I always used to take this before I flew somewhere–I have an artificially supressed immune system and the filthy air on airplanes ALWAYS made me sick. It seemed to work, although I was aware it was probably a placebo effect, hey, I’ll take it.

    But it failed SPECTACULARLY when I flew home last Christmas. I spent the entire 2 weeks of my vacation coughing up what felt like used engine oil and not being able to sleep more than a half hour at a time. I’m STILL not fully recovered.

  28. I say Airborne works. Some homeopathic fans say that Vitamin C and Zinc applied at point of infection will kill a cold at the start. If I ever had a sore or scratchy throat and I took Airborne, I did not get sick. Sometimes it took more than one dose, but I still swear by it. They can keep my refund. Here’s a thought… WHO decided to bring a class action against Airborne? People paid by Vicks or other “Over the counter” drug makers? This came down just before the report that kid’s OTC cold medicine didn’t work either.

  29. I don’t need no clinical trials to know that a few shots of whiskey cure any cold

    A recent study reported that men who drink six to fourteen drinks (probably red wine) per week are 60% less likely to catch a cold. They were guessing flavonols as the reason.

  30. Fake?!? Just because they wrongly endorsed the product doesnt mean that it doesnt work at all, does it? or maybe I’ve just been fooling myself all the times that I was around people who were “faking” the flu or a bad cold and I took Airborne right away and imagined that I didn’t catch what they had, or if I did catch it and started taking Airborne, had way fewer symptoms and started feeling better right away.
    I guess it’s much better to trust the FDA and their “real” cures. I mean its not like they are being influenced by the big drug companies or any thing, right?

  31. #40:
    .2g of C, administered orally? Well, there’s the problem. The original studies were all about intravenous injections…

    Which allow for up to a 70-fold increase in blood levels: http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/full/140/7/I-61

    And I wouldn’t say it’s snake oil. From the very link you posted…
    “Nevertheless, in six trials with participants exposed to short periods of extreme physical or cold stress or both (including marathon runners and skiers) vitamin C reduced the common cold risk by half. “

  32. I’m a fan of Airborne. I always assumed any possible positive effects were from the vitamins and herbs and shit…

    I take it whenever I start feeling like I’ve got a cold coming on, and while I can’t conclusively argue that it’s ever prevented a cold, it always makes me feel better (almost immediately) for a short period of time. Clears my head.

    Maybe it’s just the fizziness. Maybe the placebo effect, maybe the ingredients. Who knows?

  33. Airborne “works” because one will often have the early symptoms of a cold without ever actually getting a cold – scratchy throats, runny noses, achy muscles and other symptoms are usually nothing. But people take things like Airborne and handfuls of vitamin pills at the onset of these symptoms and BOOM – they “worked.”

    Even some of the Airborne proponents above say that when they got sick anyway, they still took Airborne the next time they started getting cold symptoms.

    All you need is this handy-dandy Occam’s Amazing, Cure-All, Reason-Enhancing, Logic-Inducing Laser Razor!

  34. If you treat a cold, it goes away in 7 days. If you leave it alone it takes a week.

    FDA only tracks advertising for prescription meds. FCC does the OTC.

    Go Hoosiers! no, I don’t really care.

  35. That is incorrect. The FDA absolutely does regulate over-the-counter medicines—including Motrin™, Benadryl™, and Sudafed™.

    As mentioned above, Airborne is classified as a dietary supplement, and has no proven clinical benefit over placebo (this is stated on the packaging), and thus is exempt from FDA regulation.

    However, the FTC can go after them for making false claims in their advertising.

  36. Takuan: We need a scapegoat for the software? How hard do you want me to have to bite my tongue?

    Maddy, danged if I know why that video was so funny, but it was.

  37. I used to suffer a major very bad cold every year, sometimes twice a year. I’ve been using airborne and emergen-c at the onset of first symptoms and haven’t had a cold in 3 years.

  38. Excuse me, but as a registered physician I find this information most troubling. Most troubling indeed…

    In fact I have recommended airborne to my patients for a number of years (including this one).

    Here is an article I have written chronicling my journey to airborne and jesus:


    With love,
    Doctor Hal.

  39. I didn’t read all of these comments, but I’ve got to say, I use the stuff all the time for the threat of colds and haven’t had a cold in the three and a half years since my Aunt recommended it. My parents (70 and 80) started using it at the same time and neither of them have had a cold since then either.

  40. If they said they did trials and they didn’t, shame on them!
    However, the herbal extracts contained in this formula are not placebo nor were they invented by a 2nd grade teacher. It is the main ingredients of a 1000 year old Chinese Herbal remedy for colds and flu which in my book does count for “trial”. It should be used in the early phase of the cold when sore throat and fever is prevalent. It will not work for cough so much or post viral bronchitis but will help a lot with fever, sore throat and body aches and can prevent progression and give time for the immune system to respond and thereby prevent full infection. People who weren’t helped probably took it after the acute phase when other herbs are more appropriate.
    It will keep the disease from getting worse but one still needs to rest and seek proper acupuncture and chinese herbal treatment to insure that the problem is completely resolved and quickly.
    THIS FORMULA IS NOT A PLACEBO. These herbs have been shown to be both antibiotic and antiviral in action.
    As for H1N1, since this disease progresses directly to the lungs in many cases bypassing the throat and nasal region, it will have little effect. But it might help prevent infection in the exposure phase so taking one when traveling or visiting in hospital is a great idea. Not to be taken regularly long term as it is a clearing formula which can weaken the body if taken long term when there is nothing “to fight”.

    I recommend this to my patients and take it myself. Very effective and safe.

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