The Price of Painkillers Part 2: Only Misleading in Australia

Yesterday, I wrote about how various painkillers with the same active ingredients often cost different amounts. In particular I talked about Reckitt Benckiser’s “Nurofen” ibuprofen products, some of which are advertised as targeting specific types of pain even though it doesn’t seem plausible, given that they are essentially exactly the same, that they could target different types or sources of pain.

There are a few aspects of their advertising that I think gives this impression. For one, they have products that seem intended for specific types of pain that have names like “Nurofen Migraine Pain” and “Nurofen Back Pain”. For another example, if you look on their website you’ll see that the claim “Targeted relief from pain” is pretty prominently displayed alongside their logo in the upper left hand corner:

Nurofen

The packaging of their products repeats this claim, also pretty prominently:

ibuprofen lysine 342 mg (equiv. ibuprofen 200 mg)

In 2011 Professor Paul Rolan*, head of the medical school at the University of Adelaide, laid a complaint with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regarding a TV advertisement for Nurofen as a treatment for headaches regarding this claim. The TGA is roughly Australia’s equivalent of New Zealand’s Medsafe, as they are responsible for the regulation of therapeutic goods.

For some reason (I’m assuming it’s a bug, and have emailed them about it), although the decision is still listed on the TGA’s Complaints Resolution Panel’s website, its full details aren’t currently available. However, they have been archived in full elsewhere. The thrust of the complaint was that:

The complainant accepted that the advertised product “is undoubtedly effective” as a treatment for headache, but argued that “it works by being absorbed in the blood stream and being distributed widely around the body, not only to where it is needed but to everywhere else as well”, and that “there is no ‘targeting’ to the head and hence the phrases ‘targeted pain relief’ on the packet and the claim made in the advertisement ‘goes straight to the source of the pain’ are factually incorrect and misleading”.

The relevant section of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code was section 4(2)(c), which states that:

An advertisement for therapeutic goods must not… mislead, or be likely to mislead, directly or by implication or through emphasis, comparisons, contrasts or omissions

Reckitt Benckiser’s response was basically that they weren’t being misleading because anyone seeing their advertisements would realise that when they say Nurofen “goes straight to the source of pain”…

an ordinary and reasonable person viewing the advertisement would interpret it as conveying “that Nurofen goes to and acts at the source of the pain associated with a headache, namely where the headache is located in the head” and not “that Nurofen will only go to and act at the source of the pain.”

I don’t find myself convinced by this rebuttal. It seems analogous (if you’ll pardon the violent example) to saying a bomb targets a single person, but that’s not misleading just because it also happens to destroy everyone nearby as well.

You can read the full findings of the panel yourself at the link above, but for a synopsis they essentially agreed with Professor Rolan in that:

26. The Panel did not accept that, in being dispersed throughout the body, the advertised product could reasonably be said to “target” or “go straight to the source of” headache pain or the site of a headache.

They also found Reckitt Benckiser’s rebuttal unconvincing:

28. The Panel noted that the advertiser had argued that consumers were generally well aware that Nurofen was suitable for many types of pain. On this basis, the advertiser argued that consumers would not interpret the advertisement as conveying a “targeted” action in the sense alleged by the complainant.

29. The Panel did not accept this argument. While the Panel accepted that consumers might generally be aware that Nurofen is suitable for many types of pain, this does not mean that a reasonable consumer would be aware that Nurofen is normally distributed throughout the body when taken. The Panel was satisfied that a reasonable consumer, noting the references to “targeted relief of pain” and “going… to the source of pain”, would conclude that the active components of the product travelled specifically to areas of the body affected by pain – in this instance, the part of the head affected by a headache. The reasonable consumer would also conclude that the active components of the product would not travel elsewhere throughout the body to any significant degree. The Panel noted that although the advertisement did not state exactly how Nurofen might physically concentrate in areas of the body affected by pain and target them, it did convey that Nurofen would do so. That Nurofen might also be understood to be beneficial for other types of pain did not alter this, because in such cases Nurofen would again be understood to concentrate at the site of pain.

As a result, Reckitt Benckiser was told to stop that particular advertisement and to not make the same representations in other advertisements. Of course, this only applies in Australia; to my knowledge Reckitt Benckiser hasn’t changed their advertising strategy here in New Zealand. As far as I know, it also hasn’t been challenged here.

I’m reminded of another case of what I consider to be misleading advertising from a pharmaceutical company that I’ve written about previously. When GlaxoSmithKline has advertised their “Panadol Extra” product, they have claimed it is “37% more powerful than standard paracetamol tablets”. The catch is that, when they say “more powerful”, they’re referring to potency, not efficacy, so instead of meaning the pills give 37% more powerful pain relief it means you can take 37% less Panadol Extra to get the same amount of pain relief. This might be difficult, however, considering that a single Panadol Extra pill contains exactly the same amount of paracetamol as a standard paracetamol tablet – 500 mg.


* Professor Rolan is also a member of Friends of Science in Medicine, a great Australian organisation dedicated to promoting science and fighting pseudoscience in the medical field. They do some great work across the ditch; I’m a member and I think they deserve your support as well.

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One thought on “The Price of Painkillers Part 2: Only Misleading in Australia

  1. Good news: the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (roughly equivalent to our Commerce Commission) has won a case about this in the Australian federal court, which will result in Reckitt Benckiser having to amend the products’ packaging and marketing in Australia, and to publish corrections. Here in New Zealand, the Commerce Commission is investigating: http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/world/75084008/nurofen-painkillers-to-be-pulled-from-australian-shelves-over-misleading-claims

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