Nurofen's targeted pain products under fire

5 March 2015 | ACCC takes Reckitt Benckiser to court over its pain killers which claim to target specific pain.

Pill marketing

**Update 14 December 2015: Following action by the ACCC, the Federal Court has ruled Nurofen 'Specific Pain' products be taken off the shelves within three months. The court found that Nurofen's packaging was misleading with its claims that the painkillers could treat specific types of pain such as migraines, tension headaches, period pain and back pain – when in fact the products are identical. Could Panadol be next?

Drug manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser is under fire after the ACCC announced it will be taking it to court, alleging its Nurofen specific pain products made false or misleading claims.

The ACCC's case will allege that consumers have been misled into purchasing Nurofen's specific-pain products under the belief that each product is specifically designed for and effective in treating a particular type of pain, when the products are in fact identical.

Each product in Nurofen's range of specific painkillers – for back pain, period pain, migraine pain, tension headache – contains exactly the same amount of the active ingredient, ibuprofen lysine.

Medical experts say that ibuprofen cannot, and does not, directly target specific pain but rather works throughout the body, attacking whichever pain it comes across, similar to the way a sprinkler puts out a fire.     

Back in 2010 CHOICE gave Nurofen a Shonky award for its range of targeted pain relief products. But Nurofen isn't the only brand to market the same product in different ways.

CHOICE took a look at painkillers last year and found the practice widespread with both Panadol and the Coles generic brand also doing the same thing.

Our investigation found both Panadol Osteo and Panadol Back & Neck Long Lasting have exactly the same formulation (665mg paracetamol) with the main difference being the marketing and price tag – 6 cents and 22 cents per tablet respectively.

Coles' Medichoice brand also has a range of ibuprofen products with the same amount of active ingredient, but they're labelled for Migraine Pain or Period Pain, for example. Interestingly, Aldi's generic ibuprofen tablet, not only looks remarkably similar to the Coles' Medichoice range, it also has the same amount of active ingredient and is manufactured by the same company in the same country but has a much cheaper price point.

Our investigation also found that prices for what is essentially the same product vary dramatically, with a premium brand or targeted pain claim product costing anywhere from one-and-a-half to five times more than a humble paracetamol or ibuprofen tablet.

The advice of pharmaceutical experts we've spoken with is to check the active ingredients and then buy the cheapest, which will usually be a generic brand.

In a recent price sample, the ACCC found that the specific pain Nurofen tablets are being sold at around double the price of Nurofen's standard ibuprofen products.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said "the retail price of the Nurofen Specific Pain Products is significantly above that of other comparable analgesic products that also act as general pain relievers".

Australians spent around $629m on over-the-counter painkillers in 2013, according to Euromonitor data. Nurofen's share of the market is 22% while Panadol holds 28%.