Listerine and Oral Cancer – Is There a Connection?

Listerine mouthwash was connected to the cause of a recent lawsuit filed in July 2011 by the Oral Cancer Prevention International Inc. (OCPI) against the manufacturer.

OCPI, the multinational American business conglomerate is suing for $60 million on a charge of fraud and an additional $10 million apiece for three other separate counts.

The issue in conflict is a contractual agreement that was signed in February of 2010 between OCPI and OraPharma, a former subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson. The contract gave OraPharma exclusive sales rights for the Oral CDx Brush Test Kit, a product produced by OCPI to detect abnormal pre-cancerous cells in the red and white spots frequently seen in the mouth. OCPI claims that dentists who have used this brush test have saved more than 21,000 people from developing oral cancer in the last decade.

OraPharma, a fledgling specialty pharmaceutical company that specializes in oral health care, would seem like the perfect outlet for a dental tool designed to spot early signs of oral cancer. OCPI charges that Johnson and Johnson, who purchased OraPharma in 2002 and sold it to Walter Street Healthcare Partners later in 2010, deliberately and effectively sidelined promotion of this product by insisting that OraPharma sales people offer the Oral CDx Brush Test only to those dentists who would react unfavorably.

It seems that Johnson and Johnson was influenced by a 2008 Australian Dental Journal Report that connected incidences of oral cancer to mouthwashes with high-alcohol content. Although the ADA refuted these findings in 2009 and continues to do so, Johnson and Johnson may have felt that promoting both Listerine, with its 21.6 to 26.9 percent alcohol level, and an oral cancer detection kit might appear to imply a relationship between the two products. In fact, sales of Listerine dropped by 50 percent in Australia when the 2008 findings were made public. Johnson and Johnson sells $1 billion of Listerine in the United States annually, so a similar reaction would represent a significant financial loss.

OCPI contends that 584 cases of oral cancer in New Jersey and 7300 cases across the United States could have been prevented if American dentists had been allowed access to the Oral CDx Brush Test. At this time, the product can be purchased privately in the U.K. for £80, but, in truth, it is rarely used. The U.K. reports about 5000 cases of oral cancer each year. Both regular Listerine and its new sister product, alcohol-free Listerine Zero, are also available. Johnson and Johnson maintains that it has done nothing illegal and is looking forward to settling the matter in court.



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