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Airborne Lawsuit Settled – Score One for Pharmaceuticals?

Rhinovirus, VIOXX

This month, the makers of Airborne, a popular herbal and vitamin formula, settled a class action lawsuit for false advertising. The settlement was for $23.3 million. The company admits no wrongdoing or illegal conduct.

The claims that were waged against Airborne were sparked by a February 2006 report by ABC News that questioned the validity of a clinical trial conducted by GNG – which ABC described as “a two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study. There was no clinic, no scientists, and no doctors.”

ABC painted the GNG study, using the criteria above, as a virtual Airborne scam.

While ABC News devoted a fair amount of investigative resources and airtime to the Airborne case, we are left on our own to compare this case with the detrimental effects of the actions of companies like Merck & Co. According to an October 2004 CNN article, Merck had to withdraw its arthritis drug Vioxx from the market after “an ongoing trial confirmed the medication increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.”

Surprisingly, a year later, in 2005, an FDA advisory panel decided to endorse recontinuing the marketing of Vioxx, immediately following a vote in which the panel agreed Cox-2 inhibitors significantly increase the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. They claimed that the “the potential benefits of each product outweighed the potential risks.”

The odd contradiction and illogic of this decision is explained in part by FDA whistleblower David Graham’s November 2004 testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in which he charged that the “FDA and its Center for Drug Evaluation and Research are broken.” He explained that the reason for this is a conflict of interest in which the same committee that reviews and approves a new drug is also responsible for taking regulatory action against it post-marketing, which, in Graham’s view, represents a conflict of interest. Secondly, in his testimony, he stated that the Office of Drug Safety’s management “sees its mission as pleasing the Office of New Drugs.”

The fact that David Graham testified that the FDA’s drug evaluation and research is essentially “broken” forces us to ask more serious questions. How many other Pharmaceutical companies may be marketing prescription drugs that have fatal side-effects? How many prescription drugs are not as “effective” as advertised? How many of these are dangerous drugs, which the FDA has decided that the benefits are worth the risks? It is important to note that these are risks that the FDA is willing to take with our lives, and the lives of our children.

The focus of this lawsuit is on whether or not Airborne wipes out sniffles and a cough as quickly as advertised. Although as far as I can uncover – I’ve yet to find a case where Airborne has induced a stroke or a heart attack when taken as prescribed. Airborne needs to throw in a few more man-made chemicals into the formula – and then maybe the FDA will approve it as a drug that’s fit for human consumption.

According to an October 2, 2004 report by the Inter Press Service, Lexchin, a pharmaceutical consultant for the World Health Organization (WHO), estimated that “biased research, suppression of negative studies, over-publication of positive studies and, all their (pharmaceutical industry’s) promotional activities, which includes funding their continuing medical education,” has led to “one death per 1,500 people” within the general population.

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The general belief that pharmaceuticals are better regulated and much safer than herbal remedies is a myth. They are certainly more regulated — herbal remedies are virtually ignored by the FDA. However whether that regulation actually protects Americans from harm, and whether these drugs are safer than herbal remedies, is certainly debatable.

Who is Behind the Lawsuit?

The law firms who are behind this organized effort are listed in the settlement documentsunder “Class Counsel” as Wasserman, Comden & Casselman LLP, Fazio Michelitti LLP, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. News reports this month indicated that the CSPI was asked to join the lawsuit after initiated by the two law firms.

Naples News reported that the person who brought the complaint is listed as David Wilson, a Southern California horse trainer who bought Airborne to avoid getting a cold on a flight to Europe. Apparently he got sick anyway…and claimed Airborne didn’t live up to its advertised promises.

As reported in the same article, in a statement issued on March 3rd, former company CEO Rider McDowell pointed out that Airborne is “one of the most popular dietary supplements in history.”

He went on to outline a common pattern of class-action lawsuits that target, specifically, smaller industries that are less likely to have a large and highly-funded legal team.

“It is fascinating to ride the American business roller coaster, as I call it, to watch a well-loved product scale the heights largely through positive word of mouth, then watch the class-action attorneys and certain media types circle the roller coaster car like vultures when they smell success,” he wrote.

More Lawsuits on the Horizon

Law firm Tycko & Zavareei LLP, from New Jersey, apparently concerned about the news regarding the class action settlement which would provide Airborne with some degree of pretection from future lawsuits, issued their own article on PRWeb on March 4. The report essentially advised potential clients not to accept the settlement – and instead to “opt out”.

The newswire article, released by Tycko & Zavareei LLP, read:

“Yet, if the settlement receives final approval by the California federal court overseeing the settlement, all of those claims will be deemed to have been ‘released,’ meaning consumers will no longer be able to bring claims against Airborne Health, Inc. for its deceptive practices. (Consumers do have an option to ‘opt out’ of the settlement, in which case their legal claims will be preserved.)”

While Airborne is alleged to have taken part in deceptive practices – the irony is that the statement was written as though Airborne somehow invented the tactic of sponsoring their own research regarding their product. It appears more likely that Airborne was following the business model of some of the larger Pharmaceutical companies.

For example, an article published on June 5, 2007 by Science Daily revealed how pharmaceutical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and those conducted by undisclosed sources do not always produce the same results – too often the results of the pharmaceutical trials are in favor of the entity funding the study. The article stated, “Trials with no disclosed funding sources were less likely to have conclusions favoring the test drug, compared to trials with industry funding, the researchers report.”

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Apparently having the funds available to afford “clinics, scientists and doctors” makes no difference. Just because drugs are approved by the FDA based on fraudulent manipulation of clinical trial data does not make them any more based on science. Just because a pharmaceutical company can afford scientists and doctors to present biased results doesn’t make their drugs any more effective than Airborne or any other herbal remedy that can not afford to buy out such professionals to produce these biased clinical trials.

No Evidence that it Works?

The age-old debate regarding herbal remedies is certainly never going to be resolved until the pharmaceutical stranglehold on the FDA is removed. There is enough evidence to suggest that many times herbal solutions are as effective, if not more effective, than their chemical-rich pharmaceutical counterparts. And more often they are much less toxic and harmful.

It comes as no surprise that the Pharmaceutical manufacturers don’t like the fact that a product like Airborne is so popular. After all, it is a natural remedy that seeks to boost the immune system to assist your body in naturally fighting off the common cold (the only real way to “cure” a cold). It is possible that over-the-counter drugs that treat all of the symptoms like runny nose, fever, headache using man-made chemicals may be suffering financially from the fact that folks are deciding to depend more on their own immune systems than they are on manufactured drugs.

Certainly Airborne can’t claim to “cure” the common cold – because short of a miracle, there is nothing that will cure a cold 100% of the time. Sometimes, the immune system is simply overcome by these germs.

But the value of Airborne and other natural remedies like it can not be dismissed so easily.

An article published by the BBC in 2007 reported that an American team of scientists reviewed 14 studies and published their results in Lancet Infectious Diseases. However, as is typically the case in areas of research where there has been precious little research (due in part to lack of funding), earlier studies failed to find convincing evidence that Echinacea worked – so these findings remain controversial.

According to the report, Craig Coleman of the School of Pharmacy at UConn, and his research team, searched all available medical literature for studies on Echinacea based on specific criteria. From the 14 reports they obtained, they pooled those results and found that taking Echinacea reduced the chances of catching a cold by 65%.

They wrote in their report, “With over 200 viruses capable of causing the common cold, Echinacea could have modest effects against rhinovirus but marked effects against other viruses.”

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More significantly, the report pointed out that one particular trial found that Echinacea in combination with vitamin C reduced colds by 86%. Unfortunately only one trial used this combination, so conclusions remain uncertain. Not enough researchers are conducting trial studies of these remedies.

Additionally, all of the studies evidenced that Echinacea reduced the duration of a cold by one to three days. Their conclusion read, “An analysis of the current evidence in the literature suggests that Echinacea has a benefit in decreasing the incidence and duration of the common cold.”

The Future of Airborne

Consumers of Airborne who have experienced that it works may be mildly concerned about the lawsuits and the long term effects it may have on the continuing success of Airborne. However, most folks who have experienced the positive effects of Airborne, and similar natural herbal remedies, understand what is going on. The Pharmaceutical industry and the portion of the scientific community that is largely funded by that industry are surely going to continue attempting to keep consumers dependent upon their chemical-based medications. Furthermore, they are likely going to continue to attempt to generate fear among the masses about the possible unknown “harmful” effects of herbal remedies. Meanwhile the FDA allows a drug that has caused tens of thousands of Americans to suffer from a heart attack to remain on the shelves…because the “benefits outweigh the risks.”

One of the most important actions consumers can take during this election year is to insist through state and federal representatives that the FDA be completely overhauled. This needs to be done in order to eradicate the influence of pharmaceutical companies. Additionally, it needs to be done to force the agency to focus equal resources to appropriate research and regulation of herbal drugs…allowing herbal drug formulas to be developed, researched, and approved as equal, if not better, at treating many human ailments than most current pharmaceuticals.

The only way this will take place is if we finally take a stand against this entire industry. The first American Revolution was against the British. This modern day revolution will likely be against Corporations and the American Health Care system that they’ve corrupted.

Does Airborne Really Stave off Colds?”,ABC News
Parija Bhatnagar,”Merck yanks arthritis drug Vioxx”,CNN/Money
Gardiner Harix, Alex Berenson,”FDA painkiller panel advisers linked to pharmaceutical firms”,San Francisco Chronicle
“February 16-18, 2005 FDA Summary Minutes”,U.S. Food and Drug Administration
David Graham,”Testimony of David J. Graham, MD, MPH, November 18, 2004″,United States Senate
Ritt Goldstein,”Drug Industry Scandal a ‘Crisis'”,Inter Press Service
Stipulation and Agreement of Settlement”, Airborne Class Action Settlement Administrator
Marie Vasari,”Bonita Springs Airborne settles consumer lawsuit for $23M”,Naples News
Tycho & Zavareei LLP,”Information About The Airborne Health, Inc. Settlement”,PRNewswire
Drug Company Funding of Drug Trials Greatly Influences Outcome”,Science Daily
“Echinacea ‘can prevent a cold'”,BBC News
“Meta Analysis: Echinacea”,National Association of Nutritional Professionals