Lawsuit Claims Oral Cancer Test Suppressed to Protect Listerine Sales

Johnson & Johnson’s popular mouthwash, <"">Listerine, is at the center of a $70 million lawsuit. The complaint accuses Johnson & Johnson of “fraud, tortious interference with a contract, and civil conspiracy” in allegedly suppressing sales of an oral cancer screening test in order to protect Listerine sales. The lawsuit seeks about $60 million in compensatory damages and another $10 million in punitive damages on each of those three counts, wrote Bloomberg News.

Johnson & Johnson is the second-largest health-care product manufacturer, world-wide; the lawsuit was filed by Oral Cancer Prevention International Inc. (OCPI). OCPI signed a contract in February 2010 with OraPharma, a then-unit of Johnson & Johnson, in which OraPharma was to distribute OCPI’s Oral CDx Brush Test, said Bloomberg News, citing the complaint filed in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 6.

The complaint goes on to state that Johnson & Johnson became “extremely concerned about the implications” of an Australian study linking high-alcohol mouthwashes like Listerine to cancer, quoted Bloomberg News. Apparently, said the complaint, Johnson & Johnson did not want to “lend credence to the link between Listerine and oral cancer” by selling the mouthwash and OralCDx test, added Bloomberg News.

That Australian study, detailed by a report from the Herald Sun, found that some high-alcohol mouthwashes were associated with oral cancer. The review appeared in the Dental Journal of Australia and said that there now exists “sufficient evidence” that “alcohol-containing mouthwashes contribute to the increased risk of development of oral cancer,” quoted the Herald Sun.

The review found that ethanol in alcohol-containing mouthwash could enable cancer-causing elements to better saturate the mouth lining, leading to adverse reactions, said the Herald Sun. A toxic by-product of alcohol—acetaldehyde—could accumulate in the mouth when mouthwash is swished and swirled during rinsing with the product, noted the Herald Sun; acetaldehyde is believed carcinogenic.

When the study was published, the findings prompted experts in Australia to call for high-alcohol mouthwas products to be removed from stores’ shelves. Sales of Listerine, which contains as much as 26 percent alcohol, dropped in Australia by almost 50 percent, according to the OralCDx lawsuit.

Earlier this year, Water Street Healthcare Partner purchased OraPharma from Johnson & Johnson, said Bloomberg News, which noted that, in 2009, sales representatives from OraPharma began promoting Listerine to dentists. Company officials, according to the complaint, were under the impression that “selling OralCDx would double OraPharma’s revenues”; however, before the agreement was signed, Johnson & Johnson did not advise that it was planning on launching “Listerine Zero,” an alcohol-free mouthwash and that, said the complaint, the new product “was carefully branded to conceal the fact that it was developed primarily in response to the Australian mouthwash oral cancer study,” quoted Bloomberg News.

“Johnson & Johnson induced OraPharma to breach the sales agreement to suppress sales of and withhold from the public a proven life-saving oral cancer prevention product in order to protect the sales of its mouthwash, Listerine, which has been linked to oral cancer,” said the complaint, quoted Bloomberg News.

The complaint also stated that OCPI claimed Johnson & Johnson “never had any intention of allowing OraPharma to sell OralCDx to those dentists most likely to adopt its use in their practices” and, instead, worked to “control and suppress sales of OralCDx to those dentists who J&J considered most likely to recommend the use of Listerine mouthwash to their patients, thereby depriving the public of a known cancer prevention product and destroying OCPI’s dental business,” added Bloomberg News.

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