Airborne is a dietary supplement that is – or at least used to be – marketed in checkout lines with the claim that it would ward off germs and prevent flus and cold. The product was developed by Victoria Knight-McDowell (together with her husband, screenwriter Thomas Rider McDowell), an elementary school teacher with no background in science or medicine (apparently a source of pride). Ostensibly, it contains a proprietary herbal blend including Echinacea, a proprietary amino acid blend, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, large amounts of Vitamin C, and other chemicals. According to the Airborne website “[r]esearch has confirmed that the key ingredients in Airborne support immune health, and those studies have appeared in a number of peer reviewed journals.” It is interesting that the website does not link to studies, but it is hardly surprising since the claim is false. In reality, Airborne is “basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed,” which should be understood in light of the fact that vitamin pills don’t really do anything either. It is, in other words, utter bullshit.
The company also used to claim 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, however, is a two-man operation established just to do the Airborne study. There is no clinic, no scientists and no doctors, and although the guy who ran things said he had lots of clinical trial experience and a degree from Indiana University, the school says he never graduated. Airborne’s CEO, Elise Donahue, admitted after the scam was exposed that the pill is not a cold remedy: “I would never sit here and tell you that it’s a cure for the common cold,” said Donahue. “We don’t know if Airborne is a … cure for the common cold. What Airborne does is it helps your body build a healthy immune system. When you have a healthy immune system, then it allows your body, on its own, to fight off germs.” Airborne doesn’t help your body build a healthy immune system. “Boosting your immune system” is code for “this is nonsense”. The company conveniently included the Quack Miranda Warning on their websites and even on the product itself, just in smaller fonts than the ones used to claim that the product actually works.
Part of the success of the product can be attributed to Knight-McDowell’s appearance of Oprah Winfrey’s show.
In 2008 Airborne Health Inc. agreed to pay $23.3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought against the company because there is, to put it mildly, no evidence that the supplement wards off harmful bacteria and germs.
Diagnosis: We’ll assume that Knight-McDowell and her companions actually believe their product is beneficial, which makes them merely delusional. But Airborne was wildly commercially successful and widely distributed in its time, which is exasperating.