More alt-med nonsense smacked down

By Phil Plait | September 17, 2009 12:00 pm

Oh, how I love hearing about things like this: CVS will have to pay nearly $2.8 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges for promoting "AirShield", a medicine that does nothing. They also must stop making the misleading claims that this dietary supplement can prevent colds, fight germs, and boost immune systems.

AirShield, obviously, was named to take advantage of the AirBorne fad, another in a long line of alternative health products that don’t do what they claim to do ("Airborne! Apply directly to credulity!"). Really all these so-called health formulas contain is a megadose of vitamins, which has not been shown in any actual studies to do any actual, y’know, good.

So I’m glad to see CVS get slapped down … but alternative medicines are a multi-billion dollar a year industry, so this fine is just a little tiny drop in the bucket. We could use a few thousand more such actions from the FTC. And I’m still seeing Kevin Trudeau infomercials on TV. What the heck is wrong with our system that such things are allowed to continue?

Tip o’ the 30C pure water solution to Amos at the Hive Overmind.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience

Comments (56)

Links to this Post

  1. CVS to pay $2.8 mil in AirShield settlement « Skepacabra | September 18, 2009
  1. USS Kevin

    I hope this will not seem rude, but would it be possible to split this blog into one focused on astronomy and another on medicine?

    Mr. Bad Astronomer, I am not belittling the important things you are doing in regards to destroying the dangerous myths surrounding vaccines and quack medicine. But as I originally read you to get news and insights on astronomy, I would prefer a blog of yours devoted just to that. I am assuming there are also readers who are much more interested in medicine who might feel the same way.

    I know running two separate blogs might be too much work (I was thinking about a third blog for dealing with supernatural issues, but that may be pushing it), but I just wondered if it might be in the best interests of both fields if you had blogs devoted to just one topic each.

    Thank you.

  2. Doc

    Or, BA, you could keep doing what you’re doing – you’re good at it!

    I complained to the manager of the local grocery about Airborne being sold next to real cold and flu medicines. I got a shrug and a “it’s not under our control” kind of answer, but at least I tried.

  3. Kevin

    Yes, keep it up with just one blog. I prefer that, even if I have to rant at my computer screen for your posts about politics/religion (can’t quite write down my thoughts on those topics.)

    I used to use Airborne pretty religiously, but then I realized it was doing jack, so I stopped. It was 12 bucks or so for a frickin’ placebo I wasn’t paying anymore. So continue to enlighten the masses.

  4. “What the heck is wrong with our system that such things are allowed to continue?”

    The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

    It regulates supplements and vitamins as food, not drugs, and thus exempts them from the need to undergo clinical trials and a review by the FDA for approval. Therefore, unless there’s evidence that the supplement is harmful or the makers put out clearly misleading or fraudulent claims brought to the FTC and taken through due process, you can put pretty much anything you want on the market as soon as you can ship it to stores.

    Alt med and homeopathic treatments are categorized as supplements for exactly that reason.

  5. @Greg Fish

    The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

    Yeah. Thanks, Sen. Harkin. Chipping away at the nation’s health one SNAFU at a time. I just hope that the rational types in Congress manage to keep his influence out of whatever healthcare reform bill makes it through.

  6. USS Kevin: Phil’s astronomy-only blog is right here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/category/astronomy/

    Categories. The guys who write blog software sure knew what they were doing, huh?

  7. Christine P.

    USS Kevin-

    That’s what the tags accompanying each post are for. (Look for the highlighted terms at the bottom of the post, just before the comments.) Using those, you can read just the astronomy posts.

    NO blog can possibly ensure that every single post interests every single reader. The audience is too varied. Phil’s audience includes many people deeply concerned about anti-vax/medicine, skepticism, and the other issues he addresses. We want to see such posts continue.

    And hey, thanks for not saying “I’m never reading you again!” :-)

  8. Phillip M

    Question does anyone know if the multiple versions of the Health Reform Bills will cover alt-med? I do know in the UK alt-med is funded. Or at least it was.

  9. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Phil Plait:

    And I’m still seeing Kevin Trudeau infomercials on TV. What the heck is wrong with our system that such things are allowed to continue?

    What you lot in the U.S. need is an Advertising Standards Authority, like we have here in the U.K.

  10. @Phillip M

    Sen. Harkin is trying to get language inserted to get alt-med covered.

    @IVAN3MAN

    Only as long as it doesn’t come with U.K.-style libel laws.

  11. Jeff from Tucson

    @USS Kevin – Maybe Fox News should only report on Foxes… I, for one, also came to this blog for astronomy related posts, but was pleasantly enlightened to the WHOLE world of skepticism and all the dangerous pseudoscience out there. Thank you Phil.

  12. JoeSmithCA

    Airborne IS effective in preventing illnesses trasmitted via the nasal cavity. All you have to do is stuff a couple of Airborne tablets into each nostril…

  13. Phillip M

    The CVS Pharmacist in my town actually told me not to use it. “It didn’t do anything that chicken soup wouldn’t do.”

  14. Randy

    Is it true that Vitamin C and D supplements do not help you? I could swear Airbourne was helpful, even if it was a placebo effect. On the other hand, I do not feel any difference taking Vitamin C and D supplements.

    Can someone elaborate with some facts? Thanks!

  15. JoeSmithCA

    @Randy

    There has been no conclusive results that it has an impact on something like the common cold. However it can’t hurt to take a regular vitamin supplement if you diet is lacking, but then again you are probably better off eating a proper balanced diet :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_C_and_Common_Cold

  16. David

    I’m not sure why you linked to that Scientific American ad that blatantly misrepresents the truth, making up numbers to emphasize its point.

    It ruins the credibility of the post.

  17. Debbie

    I say write whatever the hell you want and let your critics be damned.

  18. @Randy

    As far as I understand, vitamin C and D supplements would only really help if you are suffering from a deficiency. One way I heard it described was like a gas tank. Once it’s full, adding more isn’t going to make your car go any further.

    Besides, at least with vitamin C, any excess you intake just gets eliminated in your urine.

  19. bellaboo

    cosmetic companies are raking it in with all kinds of iffy claims geared mostly toward women, so why don’t the cosmetic companies have to pay fines for promising to do things like:

    get rid of / diminish cellulite and-or wrinkles
    make lips look bigger
    make certain appendages larger (or maybe that’s a supplement, i dunno)

    i’ve never purchased airborne or airshield or any other cold alt med, but i HAVE fallen for “look years younger! buy this new lotion!” marketing crap before and always hate myself for it and want a refund.

    and i’m only 29 — that’s my story and i’m sticking to it.

  20. Aline

    I like reading what you have to say — astronomy, science, tatoos, whatever. That is all.

  21. Jim

    Have your lawyer send a letter to your preschool threatening to sue the preschool if your kids get sick from un-vaccinated kids. You would have your lawyer keep you anonymous, of course. Let the school know that they do not have or enforce a policy of vaccine requirements, about herd immunity, etc. Get several parents to send in such letters. Might help you get a preschool if the preschool starts excluding un-vaccinated kids.

    Anyone have a form letter for an attorney to sign?

  22. jsclary

    @Todd W.

    There are “rational types” in Congress? Since when?

  23. I'd rather be fishin'

    I figure as long as Phil (the real Dr. Phil) has his name in the credits and takes the time to post stuff on his blog, he can write about whatever interests him at the time. I enjoy his writing, only occasionally do his posts upset my calm demeanour (I wish my wife wasn’t smirking) and aggravate my blood pressure. I don’t get upset at him, mind, but at topics such as the anti-vax stupidity, ID and the like.

    Keep up the good fight Phil. I have a copy of your book to read. It’s just that it gets buried under all the @#&*&%^$ing marking I have to do.

    Do the marking, read Phil’s book or go fishing…what a decision.

  24. 12. JoeSmithCA Says: “Airborne IS effective in preventing illnesses trasmitted via the nasal cavity. All you have to do is stuff a couple of Airborne tablets into each nostril…”

    ROTFL!

    I take Airborne before flying. I mean it’s in the name, right? If if does any good, it’s probably the placebo effect, but if it is, don’t tell me or it will stop working!

    - Jack

  25. LukeL

    I will just point out that much of traditional western medicine has very little benefit, studies have shown knee surgery to clean out the joint has no proven benefit, yet it is done 1000s of times every year. OTC medicines are extremely ineffective and by and large a waste of money.

    I would like to see a longer term study done on megadose vitamins (where a person is on megadose vitamins for months or even a couple of years then track infection trends) It is also difficult to just isolate one factor, if a heavy drinker, smoker, and poor eater who doesn’t exercise is megadosing on vitamins they will have very little benefit. This is why a lot of alternative medicines are hard to prove. (if they work at all)

  26. Pocket Nerd

    Phil, I’m just one guy, and maybe not representative of your overall demographic, but I love getting my astronomy blogging and my anti-woo blogging in one place.

  27. Amanda

    Pocket Nerd: I came for the pretty Hubble pictures, and stayed for the Anti-woo. Phil has taught me more about vaccination/anti-vax war than I ever learned at school.

    Thanks Phil!

  28. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    Just curious, I hope someone here knows, what is the survival rate for pancreatic cancer?

    On a related note, is there any evidence, any evidence at all, that a person with pancreatic cancer actually survived using pseudo-pharma treatments?

    For my flu, which I had just last week, I used traditional western medicine: chicken soup, Sprite, and ibuprofen. Since I had the flu, there was really no use in trying to interfere with the body’s regular fight against the flu. Except, the headaches and joint pain. Those, I found, were just unnecessary.

    Someone recommended vitamins E and B while another person recommended echinacea. I ignored both knowing that A) you should get all the vitamins you need from your food, extra won’t help much, and B) echinacea hasn’t been sufficiently shown to work.

    I would’ve kicked the first person to recommend Airborne.

  29. Becca Stareyes

    LukeL

    I would like to see a longer term study done on megadose vitamins (where a person is on megadose vitamins for months or even a couple of years then track infection trends) It is also difficult to just isolate one factor, if a heavy drinker, smoker, and poor eater who doesn’t exercise is megadosing on vitamins they will have very little benefit. This is why a lot of alternative medicines are hard to prove. (if they work at all)

    As I understand it, if you make sure the study populations have similar assortments of people with drinking habits, smoking habits, diets and exercise, then if your experimental population shows any improvement over your control, Bob’s your uncle. If not, and you have a big enough sample size, you can isolate the folks with better diets, or little drinking, and see if you can draw conclusions from them (with larger errors). But, if you get incredibly nitpicky, that is a bit problematic — sure, certain things can prevent things from working, but eventually you get to the point where there are so many excuses that you might as well say ‘it’s probably useless in the real world, even if we could get it to work in a study’. If I had to follow a specialized regiment — and I’ve seen some alt-med things that get pretty exact — then I might decide to just get the damn flu shot or suffer the chance of flu.

    (Disclaimer: I am an astronomer, not a dietitian or doctor or any sort of biologist.)

    Bahdum: Orac over on Respectful Insolance on Scienceblogs said it was something like 5%. 15-20% if you are lucky enough to catch it when surgery would do you any good. It was a nasty sort of cancer that no one had come up with any good answers, besides stuff that would give you a couple extra months, or make your remaining life less painful.

  30. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    Wow, my previous post was slightly off topic. Derr. Too many facepalms and headdesks.

  31. The sad thing about pharmacies carrying these sorts of things is that they give a sumbliminal “imprimatur” of efficacy to junk. Walgreen’s is another company that sells all of this crap too.

    Note to those who would narrow what a blogger should write. Get your own blog, or subsrcibe to magazines that require you to pay a subscription. A blogger owns the blog, not the readers, and you are just here for the ride.

  32. Speaking of “‘AirShield;, a medicine that does nothing”,

    unfortunately a New York Times blog recently has quite a bad article promoting homeopathic arnica quite credulously:

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/the-alternative-medicine-cabinet-arnica/

    It should be titled “Arnica: rubbing soothes and nothing homeopathic is biologically active”.

    -r.c.

    .

  33. Accountant

    I am disappointed.

    I thought this was a science blog–facts and theories supported by evnidence, but you all sound like non-scientific vaccine bashing bloggers like antivaxers.

    No one seems to have facts about the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of vitamins and/or airborne.

  34. bellaboo

    The sad thing about pharmacies carrying these sorts of things is that they give a sumbliminal “imprimatur” of efficacy to junk. Walgreen’s is another company that sells all of this crap too.

  35. Randy

    Would it be fair to say that taking airborne (or over dosing vitamin supplements) is similar to or better than:
    1. Drinking milk: Non-milk drinking westernized nations like Japan have a higher expected life span.
    2. Eating a 12 oz steak: I read somewhere that you don’t need more than 4-6 oz of protein.
    3. Eating three slices of pizza: You get enough calories with one or two slices.
    4. Drinking bottled water: What a waste of money!
    5. Drinking soda: Yummm, but unnecessary.
    6. Eating Oreos: Have you read the ingredients?
    7. Chewing gum: What’s the point? Bubbles, possibly?
    8. Smoking: This is too obvious.

    I wanted to get to 10, but I can’t think of any more. Someone help!

  36. Accountant

    Can we get more facts about airborne and megadose vitamins?

  37. bellaboo

    34. bellaboo Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    The sad thing about pharmacies carrying these sorts of things is that they give a sumbliminal “imprimatur” of efficacy to junk. Walgreen’s is another company that sells all of this crap too.

    that’s weird. i never typed that. i don’t even know what “imprimatur of efficacy” means.
    but i’ll go look it up pronto.

    perhaps i was going to reply and got lost….it’s been known to happen. ;)

  38. I don’t know what it means, either, bellaboo. I just thought it sounded good and self-righteous. Like the phrase “negligent plagiarism.”

  39. Nemo

    #16, spell out your objections if you expect to be taken seriously.

    #33, that’s exactly the point — no one has real data on the efficacy of Airborne, including the people who make it, whose job it is to do that testing. And the appropriate response to that fact is not “Well, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t,” but rather “These people are selling a product for which there is no evidence of efficacy.”

    What gets me is the ads for Enzyte, featuring “smiling Bob”. How can those still be on, after the original makers were convicted of fraud? Crazy.

  40. @ Phil, yes, keep things as they are. I come here for the anti-nonsense stuff and keep bumping into some amazing astronomy stuff that I’d probably never get around to seeking out on purpose.

    @Bellaboo #34, yep, A local pharmacy (Australia) ran ads in last week’s paper for a range of homeopathic products. So some pharmacies DO actively promote this stuff as if it had a pharmacological benefit. I’m tossing up going in and asking the pharmacist about the active ingredients to see what story I get.

  41. Nigel Depledge

    Randy (14) said:

    Is it true that Vitamin C and D supplements do not help you? I could swear Airbourne was helpful, even if it was a placebo effect. On the other hand, I do not feel any difference taking Vitamin C and D supplements.

    Can someone elaborate with some facts? Thanks!

    First off, the overall picture:

    If you are deficient in either vitamin C or vitamin D, then supplements will help you immensely. However, if you have an adequate supply of these vitamins in your diet, supplements do roughly nothing at all.

    That said, there appears to be some evidence that vitamin C can help to shorten the duration of a cold (I recall reading about this in Ben Goldacre’s superb book Bad Science). Note, though, that vitamin C does not reduce your chances of getting a cold.

  42. Nigel Depledge

    Bellaboo (19) said:

    cosmetic companies are raking it in with all kinds of iffy claims geared mostly toward women, so why don’t the cosmetic companies have to pay fines for promising to do things like:

    get rid of / diminish cellulite and-or wrinkles
    make lips look bigger
    make certain appendages larger (or maybe that’s a supplement, i dunno)

    i’ve never purchased airborne or airshield or any other cold alt med, but i HAVE fallen for “look years younger! buy this new lotion!” marketing crap before and always hate myself for it and want a refund.

    Cosmetics companies are masters of spin.

    However, if you parse through the content-free claims, you will find that most of the claims that can be tested (fuller eyelashes, plumper lips, reduced fine lines / wrinkles, whatever) are relatively modest and these actually are backed up by evidence.

    When they say “measureably smoother skin”, this means they have devised a means of measuring skin smoothness that far surpasses anything that could be detected by eye or touch.

    Most of the skin-care products hydrate the dead layer of cells on top of the skin, which makes it plumper, which fills in the wrinkles. A few hours later, however, the wrinkles will be back.

    Exfoliants (for which the claim is usually “younger-looking skin”) scrub off the layer of dead skin cells and leave visible the live cells that were beneath, which do look “fresher” or “younger”. But that will never last. It is only a cosmetic change.

    So, cosmetics companies seem (for the most part) to make claims that they can support, but you have to pay careful attention to the language they use to understand exactly what the claim is, and you must remember that the changes are always temporary.

  43. Nigel Depledge

    LukeL (25) said:

    I will just point out that much of traditional western medicine has very little benefit,

    This is absolute rubbish. Nearly all science-based medicine (i.e. what is now largely referred to as “Western” medicine) has some provable benefit.

    studies have shown knee surgery to clean out the joint has no proven benefit, yet it is done 1000s of times every year.

    If this is true, then you should easily be able to refer to where these studies were published, right?

    OTC medicines are extremely ineffective and by and large a waste of money.

    If by OTC you mean “over-the-counter”, then it largely depends on what you refer to. Such things as paracetamol (acetaminophen or para-acetamidoyl phenol), ibuprofen and codeine are proven to be effective as an antipyretic and analgesics respectively.

    Cold comforts largely do what they claim – they make you feel better (mainly because most of them contain paracetamol).

    If, however, you refer to supplements, then of course you are right, but these are not medicines so don’t dignify them as such with the term.

    I would like to see a longer term study done on megadose vitamins (where a person is on megadose vitamins for months or even a couple of years then track infection trends)

    Well, what are you waiting for? Get out there and do it.

    It is also difficult to just isolate one factor, if a heavy drinker, smoker, and poor eater who doesn’t exercise is megadosing on vitamins they will have very little benefit.

    Actually, modern statistical techniques, when applied correctly, are extremely good at isolating one factor out of several. It’s all in the design of the experiment.

    This is why a lot of alternative medicines are hard to prove. (if they work at all)

    Actually, pretty nearly all alt-meds that have been studied in any rigorous fashion have been demonstrated to be no better than a placebo.

  44. Gary Ansorge

    Vit C is destroyed by smoking, thus, if you’re a smoker, it would seem advantageous to supplement with Vit C(or if you don’t eat much fruit).

    Most of us spend the majority of our lives sequestered indoors, eschewing exposure to sufficient sunlight to promote adequate production of Vit D. Low levels of Vit D are known to increase the probability of broken bones and unless one has done a blood test for Vit D, the only way to know your levels are too low is when you start having broken bones(or develop autism. Vit D is also associated with neurological development and autism occurs at a higher rate in dark complected people living in temperate zones).

    Few of us have adequate diets, since that requires us to actually know what we’re getting in our food and that requires us to expend some intellectual energy, an effort most will eschew. So taking SOME Vit supplements is probably a reasonable idea. Ideally, we would all know our actual Vit blood levels and the way our individual genetic propensities interact with those levels.

    Gary 7

  45. @Gary Ansorge

    (or develop autism. Vit D is also associated with neurological development and autism occurs at a higher rate in dark complected people living in temperate zones)

    Do you have a citation for that? Be interesting reading.

  46. Gus Snarp

    @Randy – the things you mention are probably all worse than taking Airborne. The fact is that Airborne won’t hurt you. You’d have to take an awful lot of vitamin C for it to cause you any problems. In fact Airborne can make you feel a little better, that nice fizzy citrusy drink can make you feel a little better when you are sick. It also forces you to drink fluids, which helps alleviate cold symptoms. The problem is that these products are claimed to do much more than that, with no evidence, and are priced accordingly. A little fizzy citrus drink with some vitamin C that helps your symptoms should not cost as much as Airborne does, and couldn’t if people didn’t believe it actually prevented or seriously shortened colds.

    What about Zicam, the stuff that’s actually a drug that you put up your nose? It’s supposed to shorten the duration of the cold, but it never worked for me, and I’m not sure what it’s really supposed to do. I think it may be bunk.

  47. Kevin

    @Randy 35 – Some kinds of gum actually has a good purpose, but it has to be made of the right stuff (I probably shouldn’t be chewing the Big Red I have, for example. I’ll look for a less sugary gum next time I go for a refill.) I chew a piece of cinnamon gum after eating lunch at work – but not for a long time. It freshens my breath and gets rid of little pieces of food that I can’t get rid of without brushing (and I ain’t bringin’ a toothbrush to work – that’s just silly.)

  48. Robert E

    @39 Nemo:
    The current Enzyte commercials are still on because they don’t really say anything; they imply a LOT, but don’t give any details.

    It’s all a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you-know-what-I’m-talking-about, without actually saying what you’re talking about.

  49. Randy

    Come to think of it, since I started taking Vitamin D, I feel a little more up beat. I was depressed last year and I thought I was feeling better because of time, but it may be vitamin D.

    Any thoughts?

  50. Randy

    @Kevin 48

    I agree, I like taking Airborne. I go for the generic brand at Walmart so it’s a cheaper. And I can swear that it works, so I’m wondering if there has been any tests done.

    I did not start taking it because of the advertisements. I heard that it worked and I use it when I travel. In my mind, it works, even if it’s a placebo effect.

    Anyone have any facts?

  51. Randy

    @ Nigel 44 said: Actually, pretty nearly all alt-meds that have been studied in any rigorous fashion have been demonstrated to be no better than a placebo.

    Can you site your position? Let’s say for vitamin C or D.

  52. @Gary Ansorge

    Interesting article. It’ll be interesting to see where further research goes and if the idea pans out. It was also nice to see that the article called the vaccine link “ultimately disproved”, especially considering that Generation Rescue was very quick to move into the Minnesota Somali community and tell them it was the vaccines.

  53. Ian

    It’d be nice if they would go after “reliv international” and their MLM vitamin cult.

  54. Yeah…yeah…yeah…even here in Africa we’ve got the likes of Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe’s accident that almost killed him(instead left him wheel-chair bound) and Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the dictator Gen. Sanni Abacha in Nigeria in the early 1990s.

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