Airborne hit with $30 million judgment for false ad claims

WASHINGTON The popular cough/cold product Airborne, a sales success following a mention on Oprah, was hit with a judgment totaling $30 million Thursday, potentially payable to the Federal Trade Commission, for making inappropriate advertising claims on the use of Airborne—specifically, that the dietary supplement concoction can reduce the duration of the common cold.

“There is no credible evidence that Airborne products, taken as directed, will reduce the severity or duration of colds, or provide any tangible benefit for people who are exposed to germs in crowded places,” stated Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

This is unlike Matrixx’s Zicam or Quigley’s Cold-Eeze products, both of which contain zinc gluconate, an ingredient that has been clinically proven to reduce the duration of the common cold.

If the settlement is approved by the court, it will prohibit the defendants from making any further false and unsubstantiated cold prevention, germ-fighting and efficacy claims, the FTC stated in a press release.

The FTC complaint and agreed-upon final order follow settlement last November of the class-action lawsuit, Wilson v. Airborne, Inc. et al., which is pending in federal court in the Central District of California. In that case, the defendants have agreed to pay up to $23.51 million, which will be used for consumer refunds and attorneys’ fees. If the class action suit funds are exhausted, up to $6.5 million in additional funds for consumer redress will become available as a result of the FTC order. One redress administrator will manage both pools of funds and consumers will receive a single refund check.

The Wilson class action settlement provides refunds for purchases of Airborne-branded products (including Airborne Effervescent Health Formula, Airborne On-the-Go, Airborne Power Pixies, Airborne Nighttime, Airborne Jr., Airborne Gummis, and Airborne Seasonal Relief) made between May 1, 2001 and Nov. 29, 2007. More information on the Wilson settlement, eligibility requirements, and procedures for filing a claim online or by mail can be found at www.airbornehealthsettlement.com. Consumers have until Sept. 15, 2008 to apply for a refund for up to six product purchases.

The defendants have marketed Airborne Original Effervescent Formula as a dietary supplement containing 17 ingredients, including vitamins A, C, E, zinc, and selenium.

According to the FTC’s complaint, there is no competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims made by the defendants that Airborne tablets can prevent or reduce the risk of colds, sickness, or infection; protect against or help fight germs; reduce the severity or duration of a cold; and protect against colds, sickness, or infection in crowded places such as airplanes, offices, or schools. The FTC complaint also states that the individual defendants in the case, company founders Victoria Knight-McDowell and Thomas John McDowell, made false claims that Airborne products are clinically proven to treat colds.

If consumer refund claims are not paid on time in the Wilson lawsuit, or if the defendants have not paid at least $23.5 million to settle any other similar class-action lawsuit by Dec. 31, 2009, the defendants must pay the entire $30 million to the FTC, which will administer its own consumer redress program.

In addition to prohibiting the defendants from making claims that are false, misleading, or unsubstantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence, and providing additional funds for consumer redress, the order authorizes the Commission to monitor the defendants’ compliance with the order.

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