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A Healthy Deal for Airborne

 

BY KEVIN ROOSE

 

A schoolteacher invented it. Oprah raved about it. Cold-stricken customers and hypochondriacs flocked to it. Skeptics said it was nothing more than snake oil in pill form.

And now, the herbal supplement maker Airborne has made its owners a very healthy profit.

Schiff Nutrition International agreed to buy Airborne, which is majority owned by GF Capital, in a $150 million all-cash deal on March 30, the company announced on Monday. Schiff, based in Utah, will add Airborne to its roster of health products, among them Tiger’s Milk nutrition bars and MegaRed krill oil pills.

The deal “establishes Schiff as a leader in the immune support segment,” Tarang Amin, Schiff’s chief executive, said in the statement.

It has been rough going for Airborne, which was invented by Victoria Knight-McDowell, an elementary school teacher from California. In 2008, the company’s former owners paid roughly $30 million to settle false advertising claims brought by the Federal Trade Commission and a class-action suit by dissatisfied customers who claimed that Airborne did not, in fact, help prevent colds and other illnesses.

“There is no competent and reliable scientific evidence to support the claims made by the defendants that Airborne tablets can prevent or reduce the risk of colds, sickness, or infection; protect against or help fight germs; reduce the severity or duration of a cold; and protect against colds, sickness, or infection in crowded places such as airplanes, offices, or schools,” the commission wrote in a complaint against Airborne Health.

The claims against Airborne, which accuse the company of exaggerating the product’s efficacy, inspired mockery from late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert, who joked about the lawsuits on his show. “What’s next, science? Debunking magic amulets?”

Shortly after the lawsuits were settled, the company, then called Airborne Health, sold a majority stake in itself to GF Capital, a private equity firm based in New York, for an undisclosed amount. Under its new owners, Airborne changed management, revamped its product line and began marketing the tablets as a more generic “immune support supplement.”

The company’s new marketing push also involved a Twitter account for its uncreatively named spokesman, “Airborne Guy.” As of Monday morning, Airborne Guy had no comment on his new owners at Schiff.

 

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Source: The New York Times

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