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Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Pseudoscience Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

I was right: The teacher admits that Airborne doesn’t work

A while back, I wrote about Airborne, the “herbal” concoction designed by a schoolteacher that is touted as preventing colds and the flu if taken preemptively or lessening their severity if taken early on in the course of a cold. I concluded that there was no evidence that it did what Victoria Knight-McDowell, a schoolteacher and the creator of Airborne, claims. Now the company itself seems to be admitting as much. It turns out that the company commissioned a study to “prove” Airborne‘s efficacy, and its results did seem to show a mild positive effect on colds. Unfortunately, the study was shoddily designed, mainly because the people doing the clinical trial appeared to have no clue how to design such a placebo-controlled double-blind study:

“Simply washing your hands during cold and flu season is a much more effective way of preventing colds,” said David Kroll, a pharmacologist at Duke University Medical School.

Yet the Airborne box tells users to take the product at the first sign of a cold. An Airborne ad testimonial called it a miracle cold buster. And the company said in a news release Airborne would get rid of most colds in one hour.

“I’m not commenting on that particular press release,” Donahue said. “I wasn’t with the company then.”

Airborne said that a double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted with “care and professionalism” by a company specializing in clinical trial management, GNG Pharmaceutical Services.

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.

“I would not define that then as a clinical trial,” Kroll said.

Never let it be said that that a lack of evidence of efficacy ever stops the alties, though. They’re just going to change the packaging to say something else:

Now, Airborne is phasing in new packaging. Before, the box said that Knight-McDowell had created it because she was “sick of catching colds.” Now, it says she created Airborne because she “needed help supporting her immune system.” The word “cold” no longer appears on the new package or in the advertising.

Interesting. If Knight-McDowell is so confident in the scientific soundness of study the company commissioned, then why is the packaging being changed? I wonder if they’ll add the usual copout found on supplements that says something along the lines of “This product is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness…contact your doctor…blah…blah…”

Instead, the company is inserting the the usual vague altie claim of “boosting” or “supporting” the immune system, a completely meaningless statement, scientifically and medically speaking, at least the way it’s used by alties. (Oddly enough, I was in Walgreen’s the other night when I noted an Airborne knockoff called Wal-borne and noticed that Walgreen’s at least is ahead of the curve on this. There were no claims on the Wal-borne package that it could prevent colds.) In any case, I’m betting these guys don’t know an antibody from a T-lymphocyte, but now they’re pushing a “boost the immune system” claim. What specific aspect of the immune system are they boosting? Cell-mediated immunity? What cell type? Neutrophils, T-lymphocytes, B-lymphocytes, natural killer cells?

Inquiring minds want to know. Show us the evidence.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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