Now, company has agreed to a $23-million dollar class action settlement, to give customer refunds.
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People who have taken the herbal formula Airborne with the hope of curing or fending off the common cold are eligible for refunds from the company.
Airborne will pay $23.3. million to settle a class action lawsuit over false advertising. Legal battles beginning in 2006 called into question the product's claims as a "miracle cold buster."
"You can say your product prevents or cures the common cold if you have data to support that," said Ronald Turner, professor of pediatrics and associate dean for clinical research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. "What happened with Airborne is that they made the claim, but had no data."
Since its creation in 1999 by a former second grade schoolteacher, Airborne sales have soared, surpassing $100 million by 2006. The product has been touted as a way to ward off a cold if taken prior to entering a germ-laden area, like an airplane or school, or to cure a cold that's already been caught.
Airborne and many other remedies are classified as dietary supplements, not drugs, which means as long as they don't make specific health claims, they don't have to prove to the government that they work.
But a February 2006 investigation by ABC's "Good Morning America" found Airborne might not work as advertised. The investigation revealed that Airborne's clinical trial was conducted by just two people in the absence of a clinic or scientists.
At that time, Airborne's CEO, Elise Donahue, resisted the notion that Airborne is 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."
Since then, the company has toned down its claims, and the word "cold" is no longer anywhere on the packaging. A recorded message today at Airborne said, "Defendants deny any wrongdoing or illegal conduct, but have agreed to settle the litigation."
According to the recent settlement agreement, people with valid claims will be reimbursed for the amount they spent on Airborne from May 2001 through November 2007 if they still have receipts. Consumers without receipts are eligible to receive money back for as many as six packages each, based on average retail prices of the products. Those prices range from $2.75 per box of Gummi lozenges to $10.50 per box for Airborne Seasonal. Consumers had mixed reactions.
"What's so deceiving about it?" asked Peter Habib, an Airborne consumer who said he recently used the product before a trip to Egypt, and was pleased with the results. "It's vitamins and stuff like that that's supposed to make you feel better and make sure you don't get sick, right?"
Priya Jolly, on the other hand, said she's having second thoughts, due to the settlement.
"You know, I was going to get it in the next couple days because I'm flying out," she said. "I may not do that and just go for the regular vitamins that I have."
A final hearing on the settlement is set for June 16, 2008. Consumers have until Sept. 15, 2008 to submit a claim.