There is no cure for the common cold but that has not stopped several over-the-counter products from claiming to treat the viral infection so common this time of year.
But false and deceptive advertising carries a price. Here are a few recent cases where marketers were taken to task for making unsubstantiated claims about their product’s ability to both treat and prevent a cold.
They are not to be sneezed at:
Airborne — In perhaps the largest settlement of its kind, the makers of the multivitamin and herbal supplement Airborne agreed in 2008 to pay $30 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over the alleged false advertising of its “miracle cold buster.” The FTC alleged there was “no competent and reliable scientific evidence” behind Airborne’s claims. Sales of Airborne products exceeded $300 million from 2005 to 2007, according to the agency’s complaint.
Rite Aid — The following year, national pharmacy chain Rite Aid agreed to dole out $500,000 in customer refunds to settle FTC charges that it deceptively advertised its “Germ Defense” tablets and lozenges, making germ-fighting claims backed by inadequate evidence. The FTC said $4.5 million worth of Germ Defense products flew off the shelves from 2005 to 2008.
CVS — Just a few months after the Rite Aid resolution, national retailer CVS entered into a similar $2.8 million settlement with the FTC over the alleged deceptive advertising of its AirShield products. The FTC said AirShield was marketed as comparable to Airborne and like Airborne, the agency said AirShield lacked the science to support claims to boost the immune system or prevent colds. Sales of AirShield topped $14 million from 2005 to 2008, the FTC said.
Zarbee’s — Dietary supplements cannot make the same health claims as drugs, which have FDA approval. In 2014, the FDA said that much to the makers of the dietary supplement Zarbee’s, warning in a letter that cold treatment and prevention claims on the product’s website and social media pages needed to go because Zarbee’s is not an FDA-approved drug. One of the challenged claims that still appears on the site states that Zarbee’s provides “proven congestion relief.”
Cold-EEZE — A class-action lawsuit filed in 2014 alleges that the makers of Cold-EEZE have violated a 1999 FTC consent agreement that prohibits the company from making health claims without “reliable scientific evidence.” An FTC complaint alleging that the manufacturer of Cold-EEZE made unsubstantiated cold treatment and prevention claims on QVC, a national cable home-shopping network, prompted the consent agreement.
Dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies like the OTC cold products above are not reviewed by the FDA. Consumers should proceed cautiously and conduct due diligence before grabbing one of these products from off the shelf.
For more of our coverage on cold products, click here.