The consumer watchdog has given Nurofen a major headache.
The painkiller-maker has been ordered to pull its targeted pain relief range off shop shelves and could be fined more than $1 million after the Federal Court ruled it misled consumers.
Reckitt Benckiser, the company behind Nurofen, has admitted to peddling identical products that were marketed to treat specific types of pain, and for almost double the price.
The competition watchdog launched court action against the UK-based pharmaceutical giant earlier this year, alleging Nurofen’s treatments for back pain, period pain, migraine pain and tension headaches all contained the same active ingredient, ibuprofen lysine 342mg.
Nurofen spokesperson Montse Pena said Nurofen did not set out to mislead consumers.
“Nurofen has co-operated with the ACCC in relation to these proceedings and will fully comply with the court order made today,” she said in a statement on Monday.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims said the price of Nurofen’s targeted pain relief range was significantly higher than similar painkillers.
“The Nurofen specific pain products were being sold at retail prices almost double that of Nurofen’s standard ibuprofen products and the general pain relief products of its competitors,” he said.
The Federal Court has ordered Reckitt Benckiser to remove the products from stores within three months and amend packets so consumers know that other painkillers are just as suitable.
The multinational was also ordered to publish website and newspaper articles to clarify the status of the drugs, introduce a consumer protection compliance program and pay the ACCC’s legal costs.
A court hearing about a likely fine is yet to be scheduled, but there are penalties of up to $1.1 million per offence.
“I imagine there is more than one contravention … but the penalties clearly should be significant,” Mr Sims said.
Ms Pena said Nurofen’s targeted range was launched to help consumers work out their pain relief options, “particularly within the grocery environment where there is no healthcare professional to assist decision making”.
But Mr Sims said the company was taking advantage of people’s medical ignorance for profit.
“They were clearly, in our view, trying to mislead consumers to buy something they might not otherwise have bought, and pay more for it,” he said.
He said any representations which are difficult for a consumer to test will now face greater scrutiny from the ACCC.
“We’re definitely having a crackdown on (companies) misleading consumers about health claims,” Mr Sims said.
“There’ll be more cases in the new year.”
Australian Pain Management Association chief executive Elizabeth Carrigan welcomed the Federal Court’s decision, saying people living with pain are vulnerable to Reckitt Benckiser’s “exploitative” pricing regime.
“We hope that the penalty to be imposed by the court will be sufficiently sizeable to dissuade other companies from making unsubstantiated claims,” she said.