Airborne Settles Suit over False Claims Makers of the herbal supplement Airborne have agreed to pay $23.3 million in a class action lawsuit over false advertising. David Schardt of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it's just one battle in efforts to prevent companies from making misleading claims.

Airborne Settles Suit over False Claims

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There are 23.3-million reasons why you likely won't hear any ads like this for a while…

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer: It's that time of year when we tend to ignore the food pyramid…

(Soundbite of song, "Deck the Halls")

Unidentified Announcer: …run on less sleep…

(Soundbite of song, "Deck the Halls")

(Soundbite of car horn)

Unidentified Woman: No, no, no, too far, too far.

Unidentified Announcer: …and let stress build to uncontrollable levels.

Unidentified Woman: It's still not straight.

(Soundbite of grunt)

Unidentified Announcer: These are but a few of the hundreds of things that can wreak havoc on your immune system. Take Airborne to help keep your immune system strong.

Unidentified Woman: It's the one created by a schoolteacher.

STEWART: The company that makes Airborne, described as a, quote, "herbal health formula," has agreed to pay $23.3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit. The charge? False advertising. Now, hold on a minute. You meant that original, zesty, orange, lemon-lime and pink-grapefruit effervescent tablet developed by a sixth-grade teacher may not ward off colds?

Apparently not, after an ABC News report last found that the clinical trial the company offered as proof of the product's effectiveness was actually a two-man operation, not really a medical trial. After the controversy, the company backed away from the cold-curing claims and switched to calling the product an immune-system-boosting supplement.

They've admitted absolutely no wrongdoing in the suit, but agreed to refund consumers who bought the product. David Schardt is a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the groups that brought the suit to court. Good morning, David.

Mr. DAVID SCHARDT (Senior Nutritionist, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Good morning.

STEWART: So where exactly and in what manner did Airborne make false claims?

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, they've been making false claims ever since they introduced the product about 10 years ago. As you said, they started out making claims about colds, that it could prevent colds. Well, not only was that an illegal claim, they hadn't gotten that approved by FDA, they had absolutely no evidence that it prevented colds.

When they get caught on that, then they switched to, well, it boosts your immune system and it protects you if you walk into a germ-infested environment. They don't have any evidence for that, either. And so that's why we and other people have complained about these ads, and we finally participated in a lawsuit to make the company to fess up that they don't have evidence that this stuff works.

STEWART: Now what research did you do to reach your conclusion?

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, companies that make health-related claims like that are supposed to have competent and reliable scientific evidence consisting of scientific studies.

So we contacted the company. We, like other people, got little or no response from them. So we searched the medical literature looking for anybody who had studied the combination of vitamins, minerals and herbs that are in Airborne, and we came up with nothing.

And the company itself has been unable to produce any evidence that their product has been studied. As you mentioned, there was an early so-called study that the company - apparently, it's so bad, the company won't let anyone see it and doesn't use it as evidence that their product works.

So there's no evidence, there's no trial whatsoever of Airborne to see whether it boosts your immune system or whether it prevents colds.

We also looked at the evidence for the ingredients in Airborne, and there's no evidence that these ingredients can have the effect that the makers of Airborne are claiming.

STEWART: Once again, Airborne has not admitted any wrongdoing. Actually, they've posted - they have a Web site where you can actually look at the settlement, and there's paragraph after paragraph after paragraph saying they don't admit to any wrongdoing, and they are -but they have agreed to refund people who have taken it, if you have proof of purchase. So what's…

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, that's like a fig leaf. They're allowed to say that to get the lawsuit over with and not prolong it.

STEWART: But my question to you - excuse me, David. My question to you is what purpose did the suit serve, ultimately?

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, it serves the purpose of getting products that are making false or unsubstantiated claims to stop making those claims, and presumably Airborne will stop making those claims until they evidence that the product works.

Now, they're allowed to say that they don't admit any guilt, but they were unable to come up with any evidence during this civil suit showing that their product worked.

STEWART: You know, the people - some people swear by this stuff, and they claim it really does help them. Why doesn't anecdotal evidence -why can't that be used?

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, what you're probably seeing is the placebo effect. On the average, if you give somebody some product and tell them that it may help them in some way, on the average, about one out of three people will say that it helped them, that they got better, that they felt better, their cold went away. And that's probably what you're seeing. A lot of that is the placebo effect. That's why you need to do carefully controlled scientific studies to see whether a product is better than a placebo, and to be better than a placebo, on the average, it's got to help more than a third of the people who try it.

STEWART: You've researched other herbal supplements used to treat colds, and I'm curious about just a couple of them. I read one of your articles. Things that technically think - I shouldn't say technically - people believe help prevent colds, for example Vitamin C infused products. What did you find?

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, Vitamin C has been studied very extensively over the last 30 years. There have been at least 30 studies involving thousands and thousands of people all over the world. and when you put all those studies together, what you find is that Vitamin C does not prevent colds, that when you give people a placebo or you give them Vitamin C, they get colds at the same rate.

And when you look at those studies - if you look at studies when people start to get a cold, and they start taking Vitamin C, the studies show that Vitamin C does not shorten the duration of the cold, does not help the symptoms. It acts the same as a placebo.

The only time when Vitamin C may have an effect is when people have been taking large amounts all along and then develop a cold, they may, in some cases, have a shorter cold, but only by a few hours over the course of a week. So it's a very, very modest effect of Vitamin C, and that's what's been discovered when you study thousands of people under controlled conditions.

STEWART: It's so hard, I think, for the average consumer because I could probably find - for every study you mention, I could probably go online on Google and find an exact opposite study. The same with Echinacea - it's got a long history in Native American cultures. But for every study that says it works, there's a study that says it doesn't really work. So what am I, the consumer, supposed to do?

Mr. SCHARDT: Well, that's why there are organizations - there's an international organization called the Cochrane Collaboration, which tries to deal with that. They take all the studies and pool them all together so that you can see overall what the results are. And with the Cochrane Collaboration, what I just told you about Vitamin C is what they found.

That's what you see when you put all the studies together - not just look at one study or another study, but put them all together. And when you put all the studies together of Echinacea, what you find is that overall, Echinacea does not prevent colds, but what it may do is slightly the severity of the symptoms. So it's confusing if you look at just one study. You've got to look at them all together.

STEWART: David Schardt is a senior nutritionist with the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Thanks, David.

Mr. SCHARDT: You're welcome.

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