Nurofen provides targeted relief from pain. Or does it?

For a long time now, the pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser has sold a range of their ibuprofen product Nurofen, which are marketed for four specific types of pain:

  • Back pain
  • Migraine pain
  • Period pain
  • Tension headache

Since at least 2008, Nurofen has marketed these specific pain relief products saying they “provide targeted relief“. From watching their TV ads, you could be forgiven for believing that Nurofen will “act at the site of the pain” or “target headaches at the source of pain“. Their logo, a bullseye target, is often shown alongside the tagline “Targeted relief from pain”. Their New Zealand website describes their range as being “made up of a number of different products to target specific conditions, from back pain to cold and flu symptoms”. This Nurofen TV ad from the UK even shows a Nurofen logo performing a sort of “seek and destroy” manoeuvre to find a bull in a maze the shape of someone’s head, in a metaphor for dealing with headache pain.

The Nurofen brand really has been built around the idea of “targeted relief”. The message is clear, or at least I thought so when I saw ads like these on TV. But is it true?

Well, it’s complicated. The main Nurofen products come in two formulations, containing either 200 mg ibuprofen or 342 mg ibuprofen lysine (which is equivalent to 200 mg ibuprofen). There is evidence that these products can provide pain relief, but the way in which they do so is not targeted. In fact, all of the specific pain products have identical formulations: 342 mg ibuprofen lysine. It doesn’t matter if you have back pain, period pain, migraine pain, or tension headache. You can take any of those Nurofen products for the same effect.

In 2010, Australian consumer affairs magazine Choice awarded Nurofen their “shonky” award for these products. They revealed not only that these specific pain products are identical and unnecessary, but also found:

The shonkiest aspect is that, in some stores we surveyed, the targeted painkillers are almost twice as expensive as their all pain equivalent products.

The 2010 Shonky Awards: Shonky for pain in the hip pocket | Choice

In 2011 the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which is roughly the Australian equivalent of New Zealand’s Medsafe, received a complaint about this advertising from Professor Paul Rolan. The complaint essentially said that, although the products were effective, the claims that they provide “targeted relief” were misleading. The legislation administered by the TGA prohibits advertisements for therapeutic goods from being misleading, so the complaint was investigated. If you want to read more about this complaint, I wrote about it last year: The Price of Painkillers Part 2: Only Misleading in Australia

The TGA found that Professor Rolan’s complaint was justified, and issued sanctions to Reckitt Benckiser saying they must withdraw the misleading advertisement and representations (the TGA didn’t have jurisdiction of the products’ packaging, except when images of it were used in advertisements). But that didn’t stop Reckitt Benckiser from claiming that Nurofen offers “targeted relief”. Instead, they issued a statement two months later saying they would not comply with the TGA’s sanctions:

Nurofen advises that consumers will continue to see the familiar branding on the Nurofen target and messages of Nurofen working at the site of pain. This branding includes TGA approved claims on packs that Nurofen provides targeted relief from pain

Nurofen maker says ads will carry on | Australian Doctor quoting Nurofen

Three days after that, the TGA made a decision to issue an order to Reckitt Benckiser “as the Advertiser had not fully complied with the Panel’s determination issued on the 30 August 2011”. The order itself came nearly a full year after the decision to issue it, and required that Reckitt Benckiser:

  1. withdraw the “Live Well Headache” television advertisement (“the advertisement”) about the therapeutic good “Nurofen” which was the subject of the complaint;
  2. withdraw any representation, in the context of headaches, that the advertised therapeutic good “Nurofen” goes “straight” to the source of the pain;
  3. not use the representations in (b) above in any other advertisement; and
  4. where the representation has been provided to other parties such as retailers or website publishers, and where there is a reasonable likelihood that the representation has been published or is intended to be published by such parties, to advise those parties that the representations should be withdrawn.

Pursuant to subregulation 9(2) of the Regulations, the order is subject to the conditions that within 10 working days of being notified of this order, Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd is required to provide evidence to the delegate of the Secretary [to the Department of Health and Ageing] of compliance by Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd with the order set out in paragraphs (a) to (d) above including a written response indicating that they will continue to abide by this order.

Nurofen – Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd – Complaint No. 2011/06/001 | Therapeutic Goods Administration

One month after the order, Reckitt Benckiser advised that they had complied and would continue to comply with the order. But this didn’t slow them down at all.

Associate Professor Ken Harvey wrote an article for The Conversation the month after this response, explaining why the order had essentially failed:

In response [to the order], regional director of Reckitt Benckiser, Lindsay Forrest, said he was, “delighted with the TGA Delegate’s ruling as it validates our decision to challenge the CRP [Complaints Resolution Panel] findings, specifically in relation to our ability to communicate our long standing messages of targeted pain relief in relation to pain, including headaches”. The media statement continued, “Reckitt Benckiser’s current media plan will not be impacted by the TGA Delegate’s decision as it currently complies with all the TGA Delegate’s findings”.

It is my view that TGA delegate’s ruling has unnecessarily and incorrectly limited the Regulation 9 order to the specific words, “goes straight to the source of the pain” thereby failing to taking [sic] into account the CRP’s equal concern about the words, “targeted relief from pain”. In addition, by focusing only on the television ads for headaches and not taking into account the wider ongoing Nurofen campaign that uses look-alike branding the TGA delegate has failed to protect consumers.

TGA failure gives Nurofen consumers a headache | Ken Harvey

Professor Harvey went further, and laid a complaint of his own with the TGA and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in August 2012. The ACCC is essentially Australia’s equivalent to New Zealand’s Commerce Commission.

In 2013, Australian consumer affairs show The Checkout aired a segment on Nurofen’s targeted relief products, clearly showing the inconsistency between their marketing and reality with quips such as “When I have a tension headache, I take Nurofen Back Pain for fast, targeted relief”.

By the time that episode aired, the status quo remained unchanged from 2011, when Reckitt Benckiser refused to comply with the TGA’s ruling. As far as I’m aware, nothing changed until March 2015.

EDIT 2015/12/16: Since publishing, I’ve found more information on what happened between 2012 and 2015. Professor Harvey’s 2012 complaint to the TGA, along with another anonymous complaint on the same grounds, was successful. In July 2013, the CRP issued a written determination saying Reckitt Benckiser had breached the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code.

Just like in 2011, soon after this the TGA was forced to take further action as Reckitt Benckiser had refused to comply with the CRP’s determination. An investigation into this lack of compliance lasted from 16 July 2013 until 11 April 2014, at which point the TGA delegate to the Secretary of the Department of Health decided the TGA was correct and Reckitt Benckiser’s advertisement really was misleading.

Another order was issued to Reckitt Benckiser, saying they must:

  1. withdraw any representations, including implied representations, that imply that any two or more Nurofen products that contain equivalent ibuprofen quantities and include the same product specific indications on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods:

    1. are effective only in treating a particualr condition or conditions or pain in a particular part or parts of the body; or
    2. are not effective in treating other conditions or pain in other parts of the body, where they are indicated for those other conditions or pain in particular parts of the body
  2. not use the representations referred to in paragraph (a) above in any other advertisement unless the Advertiser satisfies the Secretary that the use of the representations would not result in a contravention of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 (the Act), the Regulations or the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code 2007 (the Code)
  3. where the representations in paragraph (a) have been provided to other parties such as retailers or website publishers, and where there is a reasonable likelihood that the representations have been published or are intended to be published by such parties, to advise those parties that the representations should be withdrawn.

Nurofen – Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd – Complaints No. 2012-08-010 and 2012-10-024 | Therapeutic Goods Administration

As with their order in 2011, this order was issued with the condition that Reckitt Benckiser must notify the TGA within 10 working days that they’d comply with the order, and supply evidence of this compliance. There was also another condition, regarding how their Nurofen specific pain products must be advertised:

any representation that refers to two or more Nurofen products that contain equivalent quantities of ibuprofen and include the same product specific indications on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods must clearly indicate, in the body of the advertisement, that the two products can be used for the same purposes and are interchangeable (or words to that effect). An asterisk in the body of an advertisement with full detail explained elsewhere, for example in a footnote, will not be sufficient to satisfy this condition

Nurofen – Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd – Complaints No. 2012-08-010 and 2012-10-024 | Therapeutic Goods Administration

On the 9th of May 2014, Reckitt Benckiser said they would comply with this order. But they didn’t. Which takes us to the legal action taken against them by the ACCC in March 2015…

That’s when the ACCC issued a press release saying they were taking Reckitt Benckiser to court:

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has instituted proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia against Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd (Reckitt Benckiser), alleging that it made false or misleading claims that its Nurofen Specific Pain Products were each formulated to treat a specific kind of pain, when the products are identical.

ACCC targets alleged false and misleading Nurofen claims | Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

Today, the Federal Court of Australia has found in favour of the ACCC:

In proceedings commenced by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Federal Court has found that Reckitt Benckiser (Australia) Pty Ltd (Reckitt Benckiser) engaged in misleading conduct in contravention of the Australian Consumer Law by representing that its Nurofen Specific Pain products were each formulated to treat a specific type of pain, when the products are identical.

Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims | Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

Finally, four years after Professor Rolan’s original complaint and many more after Reckitt Benckiser first started marketing Nurofen as providing “targeted relief from pain”, they were found guilty in court of making misleading claims.

What does this mean for Australia?

The Federal Court’s ruling makes several orders of Reckitt Benckiser. It seems that we won’t see a repeat of Reckitt Benckiser’s 2012 behaviour, as the ACCC’s press release states that:

Reckitt Benckiser admitted that it had engaged in the contravening conduct and consented to the orders made by the Court.

Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims | Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

And what were those orders? They were much more extensive than those given by the TGA three years ago:

The Court ordered that Reckitt Benckiser remove the Nurofen Specific Pain products from retail shelves within 3 months. The court has also ordered that Reckitt Benckiser publish website and newspaper corrective notices, implement a consumer protection compliance program, and pay the ACCC’s [legal] costs.

The ACCC has agreed [on] an interim packaging arrangement with Reckitt Benckiser for use following the removal of these products. This will clearly disclose to consumers that the products are equally effective for other forms of pain.

Court finds Nurofen made misleading Specific Pain claims | Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

A later hearing will also determine what financial penalty will be imposed on Reckitt Benckiser.

What does this mean for New Zealand?

Immediately? Probably nothing. Particularly after seeing how keen Reckitt Benckiser was to avoid changing their marketing in 2011, I very much doubt they are going to change their New Zealand marketing because of an Australian court case.

However, as noted in articles from Pharmacy Today and Stuff today, the Commerce Commission is investigating Reckitt Benckiser in New Zealand for the same reasons. In a Stuff article from March, the Commerce Commission is quoted as saying they were “also looking into the matter and would be following the ACCC’s investigation closely”. So it may only be a matter of time before we see similar legal action against Reckitt Benckiser in New Zealand.

If we do see legal action though, I don’t expect it to be resolved quickly. Even in cases where it’s clear that marketing is misleading, it can take a long time for the Commerce Commission to make a difference. In the only direct experience I’ve had with them, they took two years to issue a warning about a very cut and dried case of misleading advertising from Baa Baa Beads, which had refused to remove misleading advertisements following upheld Advertising Standards Authority complaints.

In the meantime, the best way to protect yourself against misleading marketing is to educate yourself. Be sceptical. If you think a claim might not be true, don’t hesitate to ask for evidence.

What does it mean for consumers?

Not much. You should certainly be aware that Nurofen’s specific pain products are all identical. You can take Nurofen Migraine Pain for period pain, and it will be just as effective as Nurofen Period Pain. You shouldn’t, for example, take both the back pain and period pain products if you are experiencing both back pain and period pain.

You should also be aware that, despite the marketing, ibuprofen painkillers like Nurofen don’t target anything. If you were misled by this, it’s unlikely it caused you any harm, but you still have the right to make informed choices about your health. Harmless or otherwise, misleading marketing about healthcare products like Nurofen does violate this right.

But perhaps the most important message of all to take away has very little to do with Nurofen at all. Because ibuprofen, the active ingredient in Nurofen, is not patented. You can buy a generic ibuprofen painkiller that is equivalent to Nurofen for fraction of the price.

For example, you can buy 24 caplets of Nurofen Back Pain (active ingredient 342 mg ibuprofen lysine, equivalent to 200 mg ibuprofen) for $17.55 from Pharmacy Direct. Or, you could buy 24 “Home Brand” caplets of 200 mg ibuprofen for $2.99 from Countdown. Yes, the branded one does cost over five times as much as the unbranded one.

If you do want to buy Nurofen specifically, make sure you’re not paying more for the same product. When I compared prices for different Nurofen “specific pain” products on Pharmacy Direct last year, I found some were more expensive despite the pills themselves being identical.


As this article discusses specific brands of pharmaceutical products, I feel it is appropriate to state that I have no conflicts of interest to declare.

I have written about this issue previously here:

  1. The Price of Painkillers
  2. The Price of Painkillers Part 2: Only Misleading in Australia
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4 thoughts on “Nurofen: Does It Really Target Pain?

  1. The CEO of the Pharmacy Guild (which represents pharmacy owners, not all pharmacists) was on The Panel on RNZ yesterday to talk about this: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/thepanel/audio/201783099/targetted-pain-nurofen

    They mentioned that there is a difference between ibuprofen (used in standard Nurofen) and ibuprofen lysine (used in Nurofen’s specific pain products). They also mentioned a Cochrane review that looked into the differences, and I’ve since confirmed with the Guild that they were talking about this 2014 review published in the journal Pain: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23969325

    It found that ibuprofen lysine, and other soluble salts, were absorbed more quickly than standard ibuprofen. The median maximum plasma concentration of ibuprofen was reached at around 90 minutes for standard ibuprofen, compared with 29-35 minutes for ibuprofen lysine and other salts.

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