Does Airborne Really Stave off Colds?

Feb. 27, 2006 — -- Americans catch a billion colds a year in this country and spend triple that -- almost $3 billion -- trying to treat them.

But a "Good Morning America" drugstore investigation raises questions about one of America's favorite cold remedies -- a product called Airborne.

Victoria Knight-McDowell, the schoolteacher who developed Airborne, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The popular talk-show host even endorsed it as a cold fighter. The product's ads are everywhere, and the company says its sales exceed $100 million.

But now Airborne's CEO, Elise Donahue, is saying 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," she said. "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."

Donahue said the best proof that the product works was that 40,000 customers contact the company every year. But a number of medical experts and watchdog groups are skeptical that Airborne prevents or cures colds.

"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.

Airborne insists the results are valid, but the company is removing all references to the study from its Web site and packaging.

"We found that it confused consumers," Donahue said. "Consumers are really not scientifically minded enough to be able to understand a clinical study."

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.

All the new packages will be on store shelves by this summer.

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