March 4, 2008 -- If you bought Airborne, the popular herbal and vitamin formula originally touted as a cold preventive, you're due for a refund.
The makers of Airborne have agreed to refund money to consumers as part of a $23.3 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit for false advertising. It does not admit wrongdoing or illegal conduct.
Products included are the Airborne Effervescent Health Formula, Airborne On-the-Go, Airborne Power Pixies, Airborne Nighttime, Airborne Jr., Airborne Gummi, and Airborne Seasonal (formerly sold as Airborne Seasonal Relief).
Airborne: The Road to the Lawsuit
Initially, Airborne ads touted its line of products as a way to prevent and treat colds; Airborne later toned down those claims and now calls the formulas immune boosters.
In February 2006, a report on national television questioned the validity of a clinical trial touted by Airborne as a study that offered proof that its products work. Soon after, the false advertising lawsuit was filed in 2006 by California law firms representing a consumer who protested that the formula did not work as advertised.
"One of their more outrageous claims is that you take it before entering a germy environment and you're instantly protected," David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), tells WebMD.
The CSPI, a nonprofit consumer watchdog group, joined the lawsuit in late 2006 when asked to do so by the California law firms representing the plaintiff. "It's just a mixture of vitamins, herbs, and minerals," Schardt says. "There is nothing particularly special about this mixture." The company is also under scrutiny by about 24 state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), according to The CSPI, although the FTC won't confirm an investigation.
A spokesperson for Airborne, who declined to be quoted by name, says, "Airborne is an immune booster. We are pleased to have reached this settlement." The company refers the media and consumers to the settlement web site, airbornehealthsettlement.com, for more information.
Airborne products were created by Victoria Knight McDowell, a former second-grade teacher whose motivation to find the formula was triggered by her exposure to germy students, according to the company web site.
The product line includes several formulas, but the basic formula includes vitamins A, C, and E and magnesium, zinc, selenium, herbs, and other ingredients. It is called Airborne because it is meant to combat airborne viruses and germs, according to the company web site.
Watchdog Group Investigates
In 2007, the CSPI, which regularly looks at dietary supplements to determine their effects, evaluated Airborne as part of an investigation on cold remedies "and found little or no evidence that the product works," Schardt tells WebMD.
According to Schardt, there is ''no credible evidence" that the Airborne formula can prevent colds or protect people from germy environments.
The idea proposed by the company, that you could take this formula and be instantly protected when you enter an airplane or other closed quarters, is incorrect, Schardt says. "There is nothing you can swallow -- no vitamin, no mineral, no herb -- that will instantly protect you," he says. "The immune system doesn't work that way."
The formula, while not providing proven protection against colds, may even be hazardous, he adds. It may have too much vitamin A. Two tablets include 10,000 IU of vitamin A, considered the maximum safe daily level, and the company dose instructions advise not exceeding three tablets a day.
Details on the Airborne Refund
At a hearing scheduled for June 16 in Riverside, Calif., a U.S. federal court will rule on final approval of the settlement, says Stephen Gardner, litigation director of CSPI.
Meanwhile, consumers can get information on how to go about getting their refunds by calling the toll-free number, 888-952-9080, or checking the web site set for the settlement. As part of the settlement agreement, Airborne will also place ads in national consumer magazines giving details about how to get refunds.
Products purchased in the U.S. or its territories from May 1, 2001, to Nov. 29, 2007, are eligible. Requests for refunds must be postmarked by Sept. 15, 2008.