November 27, 2004

Flu Phobics Going Airborne; After a Timely Promo on ‘Oprah’, ‘Health Formula’ of Herbs and Vitamins Flying Off Local Drugstore Shelves Here. Pharmacists Give It Mixed Reviews.

Take millions of apprehensive Americans who couldn't get a flu shot this year due to a national shortage of the vaccine.

Expose them to a "health formula" that gets a shout-out from Oprah Winfrey on her popular daytime talk show.

The result: a run on Airborne that has cleaned it off many local drugstore shelves.

Invented by a former teacher who was sick of getting sick in her germ-infested classroom every winter, Airborne contains vitamins and seven herbs.

It's an effervescent tablet designed to be dissolved in water, like Alka-Seltzer. A roll of 10 costs about $7 to $8 locally.

That's if you can find it.

"As soon as Oprah mentioned it, everyone was calling about it," says Tom Smith, pharmacist at Royer Pharmacy on East Main Street in Ephrata.

Savemart Pharmacy in Manheim Township sold more Airborne in one recent three-day period than it did in the whole previous year, owner Herb Morgan says.

"It's the power of Oprah, no question about it," Morgan says.

Oprah mentioned the product in late September during a show about everyday women who developed products that made them millionaires.

Already promoted by its own campy TV commercials featuring low- budget celebs such as Barry Williams, who played Greg Brady on the "Brady Bunch," Airborne quickly rocketed to national prominence and now is the top seller on the Internet retailer

Here it's selling briskly along with hand sanitizers and vitamins, as people brace themselves for cold and flu season.

"People want to make sure they don't get anything that's going around," Morgan says.

So how does Airborne work? What does it do?

Well, its manufacturer is a bit fuzzy on that. And local pharmacists have a mixed reaction on its ability to ward off a cold or other virus.

Airborne's Web site urges people to take it at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded environments like offices, airplanes and schools.

But the fine print identifies it as a dietary supplement and notes, "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."

Pharmacist Matt Hamilton at Wiley's Pharmacy in East Hempfield Township reads off the ingredients in Airborne, which include vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, zinc, magnesium and herbs including forsythia, ginger and echinacea.

Studies on whether echinacea can prevent colds turned up "not terribly convincing results," he notes.

"In my professional opinion, it's more of a gimmick than a true way to prevent a cold," he says.

Pharmacist Anita Lambert at the CVS in Manheim also is dubious.

"There's nothing to prevent getting the flu that you can buy over the counter," she says, though there are prescription medications that can reduce flu symptoms.

Lambert says the best precaution people can take is a simple one: washing their hands.

But others think Airborne may offer some benefits.

Morgan said Savemart sells a number of immunity-boosting products, which he believes work well.

Diane Boomsma, the compounding pharmacist at Williams Apothecary in Lancaster, says the best defense against colds and viruses is a good diet, exercise and adequate sleep.

But when she or someone in her family feels a cold coming on, they take three things that are included in Airborne: vitamin C, echinacea and zinc.

"I haven't been sick for a few years," she said. "My kids haven't, either."

Boomsma said people should limit their intake of Airborne to only three doses a day to ensure they don't overdose on vitamins.

"It's not a bad product," she says.