Listerine Lovers Beware – Johnson & Johnson Sued

A New York company that manufactures a mouth cancer detection test kit is suing Johnson and Johnson, the makers of Listerine mouthwash.

Oral Cancer Prevention International (OCPI) claims that Johnson and Johnson interfered with their distribution contract of the test kits.

OCPI said that Johnson and Johnson breached their sales agreement and putting their money where their mouths are, launched a $60 million dollar lawsuit.

OCPI argue that Johnson and Johnson hamstrung their sales of the kit to protect the image of one of its best sellers; Listerine.


The Story:

In February 2010, OCPI signed a contract with OraPharma, and at that time OraPharma was a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson.

The sales contract was an agreement for OraPharma to distribute OCPI’s cancer test, called the Oral CDx Brush Test. The test identifies precancerous cells in people’s mouths and was to be sold to Dentists.

The test itself is recommended by the American Dental Association and is proven clinically effective in the early detection of oral cancer, which is often not detected until in its advanced stages.

OCPI claims their life saving test kit was sidelined by OraPharma soon after the sales agreement was put into place, due to pressure from Johnson and Johnson.

But why would Johnson and Johnson, the world’s second largest maker of health care products, go to such lengths to prevent the early detection of mouth cancer?

Because studies had come to light that linked high alcohol content mouthwashes to oral cancer, and, according to the complaint, Johnson and Johnson were particularly concerned by a 2008 study in the Australian Dental Journal that concluded there was “sufficient evidence” that “alcohol-containing mouthwashes contribute to the risk of development of oral cancer”.

“Johnson and 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, filed July 6 in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey.

OCPI alleged that Johnson and Johnson did not want its Dental Sales Force (its sales team that sold Listerine to Dentists) to also be pushing a product that raised awareness of a link between its product and oral cancer.

OCPI said the executives of the multinational company were worried that selling both products would “lend credence to the link between Listerine and oral cancer”.

Johnson and Johnson sold OraPharma to a private equity firm this year.

So, were Johnson and Johnson trying to hide the truth about their mouthwash?

Bonnie Jacobs, a spokesperson for New Jersey based Johnson and Johnson, said the “company is confident that we have engaged with proper business practices and we look forward to the opportunity to resolve this matter through the legal system”.

Mark Rutenberg, chief executive and founder of OCPI, disagrees.

“This is a case of concealment,” he said.

He also noted that in the US alone, Listerine sales exceed $1 Billion per year.

Apparently Johnson and Johnson tried to keep this profit margin not only by preventing sales of the cancer detection kits, but also in 2009 it released an alcohol free product Listerine Zero, which Rutenberg claims was part of the company’s response to the Australian study.

Listerine Zero has been sold alongside Johnson and Johnson’s traditional mouthwashes. A wise move it seems, as sales of Listerine in Australia originally dropped by about 50 per cent following the release of the Australian study.

The consequences of sidelining the oral cancer test kit may have temporarily benefited Johnson and Johnson’s hip pocket however the OCPI alleges that the ramifications for the general population are quite serious and distressing.

The effect of curtailing the test “is that an estimated 584 cases of otherwise preventable oral cancer in the state of New Jersey and 7,300 such cases throughout the US” would have occurred.


Emed’s Comment:

Wash your mouth out Johnson and Johnson.

In their ‘Credo’ listed on their website, it is stated:

“We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services…”

I wonder if denying these individuals the choice to use early detection mouth cancer kits was a responsible move?

Oral cancer is a gruelling and mutilating disease that afflicts more than 800 Australians each year and kills half of them within five years of being diagnosed.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court. However, the real concern is whether we understand what we are actually swishing around in our mouths in pursuit of the perfect smile and the freshest breath.

Beware! What’s really going on behind the label?

Mouthwash is one of the fastest-growing grocery products in Australia, and Listerine, the nation's biggest-selling mouthwash and a brand endorsed by the Australian Dental Association (ADA), contains as much as 26 per cent alcohol.

The ethanol in mouthwash is thought to allow cancer-causing substances to permeate the lining of the mouth more easily and cause harm.

Acetaldehyde, a toxic by-product of alcohol that may accumulate in the oral cavity when swished around the mouth, is also believed to be carcinogenic.

So is the Alcohol Free version safe? Listerine Zero actually contains carcinogenic sodium lauryl sulphate (amongst other disturbing chemicals) so, no.

Swilling a mouth full of chemicals will give you more to worry about than bad breath.

Listerine mouthwash products generally contain a volatile chemical cocktail:

Detergents that compound the effect of the alcohol are included, like poloxamer 407, which is chemically similar to PPG aka the compound used in anti-freeze.

Sorbitol is used as a sweetener and more scarily, saccharin. Saccharin is banned in the US due to its carcinogenic actions – it is linked to bladder cancer in animals.

And of course don't forget the synthetic colours, aromas and flavourings.

Potentially neurotoxic fragrances are included. These are basically perfumes.

At best they mask odour temporarily; and since they are composed of volatile solvents, they can also alter the basic flora of the mouth in the same way as alcohol and may cause dermatitis around the mouth.

The beloved tooth fairy would drop dead if she knew what we were doing to ourselves in order to boast fresh breath.


What else can I do?

Bad breath generally comes from sulphur-producing bacteria on the tongue. With good basic oral hygiene – including keeping your tongue clean – mouthwash is not necessary.

Rinsing your mouth out with salt water is good as it alkalises your mouth and helps strengthen your gums.

If you have persistent bad breath it could be because of gum disease or some other underlying infection. A trip to the dentist is what you need.

For die-hard mouthwash fans why don't you try making your own?

Not only will your mouthwash be alcohol-free but it also won't contain a large collection of worrying ingredients.

Emed Recipes:

Rosemary Mint Mouthwash – All you need are 2 and a half cups of mineral or distilled water, one teaspoon of rosemary leaves, one teaspoon of fresh mint, and one teaspoon of anise seed. Now, simply boil the water, and then add the herbs and seeds. It is sort of like making iced tea! You just infuse for twenty minutes, cool, and strain. Then, it is good to use as a mouthwash or gargle.

Potent Antibacterial Herbal Mouthwash – Use 30 g cloves or powdered myrrh OR 55 g to 110 g goldenseal or rosemary. Place the plant materials in a 500ml jar and cover with the 2 cups boiling water. Let it steep overnight, then strain.


How Bizarre – Did You Know?

Bright colours and nice smells mean that children often find mouthwashes fascinating. So fascinating in fact that each year hundreds accidentally get intoxicated on as little as 60 ml.

Apparently, some adults also can’t resist the appeal. In 2005 an American woman was arrested for drunk driving after drinking three glasses of Listerine.

Carol Ries, 50 years old, was pulled over after she rear-ended another vehicle at a red light.

Police found a bottle of Listerine in her car, and she told them she had drunk three glasses earlier in the day.

They breathalyzed her and Carol’s blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit.