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Allergen Block: invisible shield or invisible results?

Rating

5 Star

Allergen Block: invisible shield or invisible results?

Our Review Summary

Another entry in the solid "Healthy Skeptic" series in the LA Times.  The reporter does a good job of exploring the claims about an allergy product called Allergen Block. The story says that there is no evidence it works, that it did not have to be proven effective to come to market and that the mechanism by which it is said to work may be flawed.

The reporter also uses language in a way that reveals skepticism: "premise," "supposedly," "so-called" and "presumably." The writer also has some sport with the company’s refusal to identify the "cationic" molecules it uses. The tone is generally light, even playful.

The quotes from the product’s inventor and medical adviser come off as plainly self-interested. Of the two independent skeptics, one delivers a vivid negative quote, the other gets the last word.

The big question is whether a story like this should be written. The piece will inevitably bring the product to the attention of people who would otherwise remain blissfully ignorant of it. Some will buy it.

But the counter-argument is persuasive too. Products like this–with no proven efficacy or safety, based on a sketchy scientific premise and sold via a compelling promise–are heavily advertised and promoted. [See this TV commercial for Allergen Block.]

There’s a lot to be said for the media playing fact-checker on health and medical product promotions. It’s tempting to argue that if you ignore them they’ll go away. They won’t. The press should keep an eye on stuff like this. 

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story reports that a 0.1 oz tube costs $14. 

It would have been useful to compare Allergan Block to other over-the-counter allergy products. This would take only a sentence or a phrase and would have been valuable. 

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

There is no data showing the products works, and the reporter makes this clear.

Lacking data to report, the author clearly lays out the company’s claims and then includes rebuttals from experienced allergists. 

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The reporter quotes both the physician who helped develop the product and an independent skeptic saying the product is safe.

Based on a description of the ingredients and information on the product’s website, this appears to be correct.

The final source in the story raises the most relevant potential harm–spending money for something that doesn’t work. 

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The story states plainly that there is no evidence the product works as promised.

It also explains that the product did not have to be approved as a drug, and that the bar that needs to be crossed in order for the product to be approved for marketing as a "device" is very low.

The reporter references an English study that suggests one of the assumptions behind Allergen Block–that allergens are negative charged–may not be true. 

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t exaggerate the severity or prevalence of allergies.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

Sources include:

  • The product inventor
  • An allergy expert who helped develop the product
  • Two independent allergists, both of whom have negative things to say about the product

This is adequate sourcing and balance. The reporter also properly discloses that Ratner owns stock in the company owned by the product’s inventor. 

A longer story might have mentioned that engineer Ashok Wahi, inventor of the product, is the author of 10 books, including Yoga to Help You Quit Smoking and a novel, “The Vital Breath,” described as a "110,000 words love story of reincarnation spanning over two life times promoting non-violence through yoga."

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story should have mentioned the most common medications and treatments for seasonal allergies, so readers would understand the range of options available.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story correctly states that Allergen Block is widely available at drug stores.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story states that this product is the only one based on the assumption that a gel with positively charged ions can intercept allergens with negative ions before they enter the nose. This principle has apparently never been verified by scientific study. 

So the story notes the potential novelty but is also appropriately skeptical.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to have drawn heavily from the product’s press release.

Total Score: 9 of 10 Satisfactory

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