Cold and flu season is upon us, which means, of course, that the snake oil peddlars are back in action.
This past weekend I saw the first of what I am sure will be a non-stop barrage of TV ads for Cold-FX. You know, the “clinically-proven” and “proudly Canadian” product that claims to reduce the “frequency, severity and duration” of colds and flu.
It’s the “#1 selling adult cold remedy” and “It works!” according to the company’s website.
The only problem—and it’s a big one—is that it doesn’t work.
There have been four clinical trials conducted on the product (all funded by the manufacturer, and three of them were by the same researchers, for the record).
The first of these came under question because it was actually two separate studies, neither of which showed an appreciable difference between the Cold-FX and placebo groups. But when the researchers later combined the data the company was able to show a “statistically significant reduction” in lab-confirmed cases of flu (although no difference in self-reported symptoms).
Combining two trials is a questionable practice, of course, and I’ve written before about statistical significance versus clinical meaningfulness.
The next of the four (or five, depending on whether you accept the validity of combining studies) included 323 healthy adults, half of whom took Cold-FX and half a placebo for four months.
Patients taking Cold-FX self-reported 0.68 colds per person and those taking placebo 0.93 per person over the study period. The researchers did not conduct laboratory verification of the reported colds.
The third of the four (five) trials is almost not worth mentioning because of all its flaws. It was an exceptionally small trial (43 people); was published in the disreputable Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine; had ill-defined parameters; and included a data-muddying flu vaccine given to all the participants four weeks into the study. Not surprisingly the results of this one were inconclusive at best.
Finally, a 2011 trial involved 783 adults in three groups. One of the Cold-FX groups took 400 mg daily and the other 800 mg. The researchers concluded that, over a six-month period, the incidence of laboratory-confirmed clinical upper respiratory infections in the Cold-FX groups were 5.2 and 4.6 per cent and 5.5 per cent in the placebo group. Hardly a conclusive result
The bottom line is that if, in fact, there is an effect at all of taking this product, it is marginally better than placebo at best. Considering that if you take Cold-FX as directed on the label, it would cost hundreds of dollars a year for the dubious possibility it might prevent a cold, is it really worth it?
So, it is clear from the science, that the company is not good at manufacturing an effective cold remedy, at least not one that lives up to the company’s marketing. Given what the spin-doctors say about the product, the effect should have been very obvious and conclusive across all the trials, good or bad.
There is something seriously wrong with consumer protection legislation in this country that allows companies like this to get away with making outrageous, unsupported claims about their products.
The biggest problem though is that so many people are prone to be influenced by the marketing rather than the science.
Don Cherry, once a paid ambassador of the brand, summed it up during a 2012 exposé by CBC’s Marketplace of the shoddy science and questionable marketing practices behind the product’s success.
When Marketplace host Erica Johnson suggests to Cherry there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of Cold-FX, he says, “I’m not interested in what scientists say. Science, so what?”
So what, indeed. Here’s all the science you need to know about reducing the likelihood of contracting colds and flu this winter: wash your hands!
Numerous very good studies have shown clinically meaningful results that proper and frequent hand-washing reduces the incidence of colds and flu by 40 to 50 per cent and it costs next to nothing.