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If effervescent shields won’t protect you, what will?

If you believe the manufacturer’s claims, Airborne Effervescent Health Formula has been helping consumers ward off colds and other contagious ilk since it hit the market in 1999.

If you believe the manufacturer’s claims, Airborne Effervescent Health Formula has been helping consumers ward off colds and other contagious ilk since it hit the market in 1999. Unfortunately for Thomas McDowell and Victoria Knight-McDowell, the California couple who developed the product, the supplement doesn’t appear to boost immunity to class-action lawsuits.

Last week the couple agreed to establish a $23.3 million fund for dissatisfied Airborne purchasers who want a refund. Airborne Inc. and the McDowells inked the deal with the typical Sergeant Schultz “I know NOTHING!” proviso, denying any wrongdoing and all claims made in the lawsuit.

But why would anyone want a refund on a “Miracle Cold Buster”? They’d have to be sick.

The complaint (PDF) filed by plaintiff David Wilson, whose 2005 trip to Europe was highlighted by an Airborne-impervious cold, alleges that Airborne Inc. repeatedly made fraudulent claims about the supplement: first, that it could cure the common cold, and second, that it could actually prevent a cold from developing. These bold claims led to bold-letter advice on Airborne packaging, “TAKE AT THE FIRST SIGN OF A COLD SYMPTOM OR IN CROWDED PLACES.” At the first sign – you know, a sandy quality to the throat, a faint burning in the nose with inhalation – and by crowded places the Airborne website specifically notes schools, airports, airplanes, offices, theaters, classrooms – anywhere where people congregate.

Marketing image: traveling with a shield
The complaint explained how it believes Airborne Inc. (which has manufacturing facilities in Minneapolis) used that niche – the paranoid, the crowded, the traveler – to portray its supplement as an at-the-ready germ deflector shield. Airborne sought to bolster that claim by pointing out how the effervescent fizzing qualities of Airborne’s dissolving tablets allowed the mix of 17 natural ingredients – herbal extracts, vitamins and amino acids – to be rapidly absorbed. So that as one was looking for seat 28-C, Airborne was already at work, bringing the weary traveler’s immune system to full battle stations.

Keeping the viral deflector shield up and running takes some diligence, of course, which is why Airborne recommended redosing as often as every three hours. Given the high doses of vitamin A in a single dose (5000 I.U.), the suit claimed that those using more than two Airborne tablets a day were at risk of vitamin A toxicity, 10,000 I.U. being the maximal safe daily intake.

It appeared that all that fizzing and the deflector-shield marketing plan, if not the supplement itself, was working wonderfully through the early 2000s. Testimonials came flooding in, and an Oprah appearance in 2004 sent sales hurtling into the $100 million range ($151 million in 2006). Then, according to Wilson’s complaint, Airborne went for broke by claiming to have sponsored a clinical trial that scientifically showed the supplement worked. Though the company’s website published claims of efficacy, it wasn’t willing to cough up the details of the study.

In February of 2006, an ABC News investigation found that the company that conducted the trial – GNG Pharmaceutical Services – was actually two men with no medical or scientific background. One claimed to have a degree from Indiana University, but the school said he never graduated.

Backpedaling on the miracle
The ABC News investigation and the filing of the class-action lawsuit in 2006 sent the Airborne empire backpedaling, and it’s been doing so ever since. References to the “clinical trial” were expunged from the company website, dosing guidelines were narrowed, and the “Miracle Cold Buster” claims were softened. To answer its own question, “Is Airborne a cure for the common cold?” the website now reads, “There still is no cure for the common cold. Airborne helps boost your immune system to help fight germs and viruses that abound in offices, classrooms, airplanes, and other public places.” So they’re still whistling the same tune; they just changed the key.

David Schardt is a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which appeared as co-counsel on the suit. Schardt’s review (PDF) of Airborne’s claims concluded, “Airborne is basically an over-priced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.” And that’s from an organization whose magazine is titled Nutrition Action.

I think good nutrition has been undervalued in staying healthy, but its value hasn’t been easy to prove. For example, while we know that people with higher intakes of fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of heart disease and cancer, we’ve had a hard time showing that supplementing patients with beta-carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C, etc., can do the same. We spend $3 billion a year on cold remedies, but it’s all for symptom relief. Scientifically speaking, we don’t have a pill or potion that’s been clearly proven to boost the immune system.

The inescapable inflight hazards
What can the frequent flyer do? Some of the infectious hazards of the airport system are inescapable: thousands of people from a thousand different geographies funneling through the same area, bringing with them their local version of the cold or the flu; the proximity and personal contact of a cramped airliner; the incredibly dry cabin air that dries up mucus membranes and impairs the nose’s immune system. But one fact remains, and it holds true whether you have more frequent flier miles than the Tooth Fairy or you teach second-graders, as Airborne inventor Victoria Knight-McDowell used to. Cold viruses cannot drill through skin or clothing. Inhaling the contents of a sneeze isn’t the best way to directly catch a cold either.

When it comes to the rhinovirus, the main purveyor of the common cold, what the virus really needs is a hand up, literally. Rhinovirus can live for several hours in a microscopic puddle of spittle on a doorknob, arm rest, newspaper, etc. Get that on your hand and then a swipe of the eyes or the nose is all that’s needed.

I asked Dr. Jason Sanchez, an infectious disease expert practicing here in the Twin Cities, for his view of things in the aftermath of the Airborne settlement (PDF).

With the “Miracle Cold Buster” having been discredited, is it still safe to fly? “Absolutely not,” Dr. Sanchez warned me.

Is there anything that can really boost our immune system? “Not really, other than good sleep, avoiding stress, adequate nutrition, those kinds of things,” Dr. Sanchez said. “If you look at the HIV population, a lot of things have been tried to improve their immune function, but the only thing that really works is the anti-retroviral drugs.” They work because they restore the number of white blood cells back to normal.

So what does an infection disease expert like you do when you board a plane?

“What do I do? Nothing. I worry about my kids, getting them all in their seats without a lot of screaming and whatnot.”