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Listerine Maker Sought to Squash Sales of Oral Cancer Test, Lawsuit Claims

Jul 11, 2011

Johnson & Johnson has been accused of suppressing sales of an oral cancer screening test in order to keep the public in the dark about a possible link between the disease and its Listerine mouthwash.  According to a lawsuit filed by Oral Cancer Prevention Inc. 73,000 U.S. cases of oral cancer could have been prevented if Johnson & Johnson had allowed sales of the Oral CDx Brush Test.

Oral cancer is a difficult disease to detect in its earliest stages.  Because of that, the five year survival rate among oral cancer victims is only around 50 percent.  Even when it is treated successfully, many oral cancer victims are left debilitated and disfigured.

Oral cancer is preceded by white dots on the gums, but the only way to determine if these dots are cancerous is through a biopsy.  However, according to the Oral Cancer Prevention lawsuit, the Oral CDx Brush Test allows dentists to easily suspect cells away from the gums so they may be sent to a lab for testing.  In 2010, the company entered into an agreement with Johnson & Johnson's former OraPharma Inc. unit,  which granted OraPharma exclusive rights to distribute the test.  But, according to the suit "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."

The reason, Oral Cancer Prevention claims, is that Johnson & Johnson was concerned about the 2008 Australian study that showed an association between oral cancer and alcohol-based mouthwashes like Listerine.  The company did not want to “lend credence to the link between Listerine and oral cancer" by selling both its mouthwash and Oral CDx Brush Test. 

The 2008 Australian study, which was published in the Dental Journal of Australia, concluded 'that sufficient evidence to accept the proposition that developing oral cancer is increased or contributed to by the use of alcohol-containing mouthwashes."  The Australian study consisted of a review of previous research that involved more than 3,200 people.  The scientists found evidence that the ethanol in mouthwash increases the permeability of the mucosa to cancer-causing substances like nicotine.  They also pointed out that acetaldehyde, a toxic substance that results from the breakdown of alcohol, is also a carcinogen, and may accumulate in the oral cavity when swished around the mouth.  

Listerine contains 26 percent alcohol, more than wine and beer.  Alcohol consumption has long been known to be a risk factor for oral cancer.  The authors of the Australian study asserted that alcohol-containing mouthwashes “should be prescribed by dentists, like any other medication," and be used for a limited period of time.

After publication of the study, Listerine sales in that country dropped by 50 percent.  The Oral Cancer Prevention lawsuit claims that Johnson & Johnson failed to disclose that it intended to launch an alcohol-free mouthwash called “Listerine Zero” that "was carefully branded to conceal the fact that it was developed primarily in response to the Australian mouthwash oral cancer study."

The lawsuit accuses Johnson & Johnson of fraud, tortious interference with a contract and civil conspiracy. It seeks at  least $210 million in damages.

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