Airborne is a dietary supplement containing herbal extracts, amino acids, antioxidants, electrolytes, synthetic vitamins, and other ingredients. It was created by Victoria Knight-McDowell in the early 1990s. It is offered for sale over-the-counter in many U.S. retail stores in three different forms: tablet, chewable lozenge, or powder. It is marketed as a dietary supplement supporting the immune system, though the benefit to users remains unestablished. The former owners were fined by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising and were the subject of successful class action lawsuits.
The formula for Airborne was developed by Victoria Knight-McDowell, an elementary school teacher from Carmel, California. She began brewing herbal and vitamin cocktails in the early 1990s and selling them in tablet form to local drug stores. Later on, Knight-McDowell contracted cartoonist Lloyd Dangle to create Airborne's brand and packaging. In 1997 specialty grocery chain Trader Joe's ordered 300 cases of Airborne tablets to sell, and by 1999 other larger chains, such as Wal-Mart and Rite Aid, began stocking Airborne.
Airborne immune support supplements are available in three forms: Original effervescent tablets which, when dissolved in water, offer fast-acting absorption, available in Zesty Orange, Lemon Lime, Pink Grapefruit and Very Berry flavors; On-the-Go powder packets which are easily added to water bottles, in Lemonade and Very Berry flavors; and new Airborne chewable tablets, which can be taken anytime without water, in Citrus and Berry flavors.
Testing, research, and controversy
Although the manufacturer recommends that Airborne be taken "at the first sign of a cold symptom, or before entering crowded environments, like airplanes and offices," Airborne has not undergone any testing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Further, the manufacturer itself makes no actual claims with regard to user health (the claims are all along the lines of "all natural", "dissolves quickly", etc.) Because it is sold as a dietary supplement and not as a drug, current law allows it to be marketed without prior review and approval of testing results that demonstrate that it provides a medical remedy. However, all claims on the label for consumer products have to be truthful and supported by scientific evidence.
There are no studies supporting Airborne's effectiveness that meet scientific standards. The "GNG Pharmaceutical Services Inc." study often referenced in the debate over Airborne's effectiveness was sponsored by the Knight-McDowell Labs, manufacturers of Airborne. In February 2006, ABC News discovered that GNG Pharmaceutical Services has no official clinic, scientists, or even doctors. In fact the company comprises only two men, who started the company just to perform this study. Because of the bad publicity that this controversy has brought forth, Knight-McDowell Labs has removed all references to the study from their packaging and web site.
A medical report on Airborne addressed some of these concerns, specifically regarding its large amounts of vitamin C:
There are some concerns. First, there is no conclusive evidence that this product or any of its ingredients prevents colds or shortens their duration. Second, the adult tablet contains 1 g of vitamin C, and the directions for use advise taking 1 tablet at the first sign of a cold and repeating the dose every 3 hours as necessary. Vitamin C in doses higher than 1 g increases oxalate and urate excretion and may cause kidney stones. Third, the safety of this herbal extraction combination has not been established. And with herbs and dietary supplements in general, we only have the manufacturers word on the label for what s in them.
Class action lawsuits and settlements
The former makers of Airborne had been accused by the FTC of using false advertising in its marketing and making unproven claims that it could help ward off harmful bacteria and germs and help prevent the flu and the common cold. It has therefore been the subject of class action lawsuits and settlements. In addition to previous settlements including over $23 million in early 2008, Airborne paid an additional $7 million settlement on December 16, 2008 as part of charges that it made unproven claims to cure or prevent illness. There are no studies supporting Airborne's effectiveness that meet scientific standards.
A class action lawsuit was filed against the former owners of Airborne Health, Inc. (and other defendants) alleging that Airborne falsely advertised certain therapeutic properties, including the ability to cure or prevent the common cold, when marketing products under the Airborne brand name. Defendants denied any wrongdoing or illegal conduct but have agreed to settle the litigation.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) participated in the class action lawsuit against Airborne. Their senior nutritionist had this to say:
- "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."
On March 4, 2008, the former owners of Airborne Health Inc. agreed to pay $23.3 million to settle the lawsuit. Customers with proof of purchase will be refunded for any Airborne they have ever bought. Those without proof of purchases will be reimbursed for up to six packages. Any claims must have been postmarked or received prior to September 15, 2008 in order to be considered "timely".
On August 14, 2008, a press release from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated that the former owners of Airborne Health, Inc. has agreed to pay up to $30 million to settle FTC charges. According to the FTC s complaint:
- "there is no competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims made by the defendants that Airborne tablets can prevent or reduce the risk of colds, sickness, or infection; protect against or help fight germs; reduce the severity or duration of a cold; and protect against colds, sickness, or infection in crowded places such as airplanes, offices, or schools."
The FTC complaint also states that the company's former owners and founders, Victoria Knight-McDowell and Thomas John McDowell "made false claims that Airborne products are clinically proven to treat colds."
Shortly after the settlements, a new management team was brought in to run the company. This management team was led by Marti Morfitt, former CEO and director of CNS, Inc. In October 2009, Airborne was purchased by GF Capital Management and Advisors, LLC a New York City-based private equity firm. GF Capital said that the entire management team, including CEO Marti Morfitt, will remain intact.
According to the official website, Airborne contains a special blend of zinc, ginger, Echinacea and 13 other vitamins, minerals and herbs. Each tablet of Airborne contains 5 calories.
The complete list of ingredients is the following:
- Vitamin A as retinyl palmitate According to the manufacturer's presentation of the product, Vitamin A supplementation supports the body's immune system by protecting the cell-mediated immunity and works synergistically with other antioxidants that support the immune system such as vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and manganese;
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) which, according to the official Airborne website, is needed to modulate the high levels of stress hormones and preserve the levels of vitamin C necessary to maintain a healthy immune system;
- Vitamin E (as delta-tocopheryl acetate) which boosts the immune system through its antioxidant properties that enhances and augments antibody production;
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2) is claimed to have a role in the formation and functioning of some other vitamins;
Magnesium (as oxide and sulfate);
Zinc (as sulfate);
- Selenium (as amino acid chelate);
Manganese (as gluconate);
- Herbal extract proprietary blend containing: maltodextrin, Lonicera (flower), Forsythia (fruit), Schizonepeta (aboveground parts), ginger (dried rhizome), Chinese Vitex (fruit), Isatis (root) and Echinacea (aboveground parts)
- Amino acids: glutamine (as L-glutamine) and lysine (as L-lysine HCl);
- Other ingredients: sorbitol, citric acid, sodium bicarbonate, potassium bicarbonate, orange flavor, mineral oil, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose.
However, it seems that Echinacea and vitamin C, the most commonly touted cold remedies, when tested in careful clinical studies, are ineffective in treating colds. Only Zinc, as a throat lozenge but not an effervescent tablet, has been effective in decreasing cold symptoms and the effectiveness of Airborne based on the zinc compound is in any case debatable given that a tablet contains only 10% of the daily recommended dose.
The official website does not list any side effects that one might experience after taking Airborne, aside from "some sensitivity to any of the vitamins or herbal extracts".
People who might be allergic to one of the ingredients of the product are advised to avoid using it or consult a doctor before taking it. Also, people who are taking other type of medication at the same time or who suffer from different medical conditions are recommended to consult their physician before taking Airborne.
Side effects from vitamin overdoses may occur, especially in patients with kidney failure. On the other hand, the nutritional label of the original Airborne product stated that the amount of Vitamin A included in one tablet of the product represents 100% of the daily value. Yet, the manufacturers recommend that users should take a pill 3 times a day which means that they will exceed the recommended daily dose of Vitamin A by an extra 200%. Vitamin A toxicity can cause nausea, vomiting, anorexia, irritability, drowsiness, altered mental status, blurred vision, headache and muscle pain and weakness. In very large doses, Vitamin C in kidney failure patients can cause severe side effects such as oxalate deposits in bone and soft tissues and may interfere with the absorption and metabolism of vitamin B12. Very high doses of vitamin E may produce headaches, tiredness, double vision, and diarrhea in humans and very high doses, higher than 800 mg, may increase blood clotting time, especially for people on blood thinners. Also, magnesium overdose may occur and signs of magnesium toxicity can include changes in mental status, nausea, diarrhea, appetite loss, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, extremely low blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat.
Airborne may be taken "whenever one feels his immune system needs support". The tablets are intended to be dissolved into a glass of water and the dose can be repeated every 3 hours as necessary, without exceeding 3 doses in a day.