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Take two aspirin and call lawyers over ad claims

Published Oct. 7, 2005

Bayer works wonders. More doctors use Tylenol. Advil stops the pain.

The claims, counterclaims and dizzying displays of tablets, capsules, caplets and gel caps are enough to bring on a slam-bang headthumper that would make even Robert Urich groan.

Americans' preoccupation with their throbbing heads has encouraged a vigorous advertising battle in which the purveyors of painkillers fight almost hourly over which works fast! faster! fastest!

You choose: Regular strength, extra strength? Doctor-recommended, hospital-used? Regular containers or easy-open bottles? Easy-to-swallow or the old choke-em-down-with-water? (That's a choice?)

Over the years, this barrage helped Tylenol bump Bayer as the top-selling painkiller. Now Advil is en route to toppling Tylenol.

New on the scene is Aleve, which says its pain relief lasts two to three times longer than the competition, a claim that threatens to consign the other guys to a list of headache has-beens.

That's one reason why the makers of Advil sued Aleve this week, claiming it deceives customers with false advertising. At stake is the pre-eminent position in a $2.5-billion business with more than 140 brands.

"All day long _ all day strong," boast Aleve's TV commercials, part of a $100-million campaign undertaken by Procter & Gamble Co., which sells the drug in partnership with drugmaker Syntex Corp.

One or two Aleve pills last eight to 12 hours, the ads say, while official-looking bar graphs show the competition pooping out at four to eight hours.

That's not only wrong, it's dangerous, asserts Karen Brown, spokeswoman for American Home Products Corp., maker of Advil.

The painkilling power of Aleve and Advil is "virtually the same," but Procter & Gamble has distorted test results to claim otherwise, Brown said.

In fact, P&G never planned to tout the longer-lasting dosage. The factor it seems to be boasting about _ the recommendation to take Aleve only every 8 hours _ was actually required by the Food and Drug Administration because doctors were worried about side effects of indigestion, constipation and sleeplessness that could result if the pills were taken more frequently.

"Here we have a disadvantage in terms of safety and it's being twisted to look like an advantage," said Brown.

The lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Newark, N.J., demands that Procter & Gamble halt the advertising campaign, run corrective ads and pay unspecified dollar penalties.

Late Tuesday, Procter & Gamble issued a statement saying all its claims for Aleve are true and were cleared by the FDA before the product was launched.

Major Painkiller Categories

The following are the major categories of over-the-counter painkillers, as described by medical textbooks. All of them work by inhibiting hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which trigger fever, pain and inflammation.

Aspirin:

Also called acetylsalicylic acid, similar medicines have been used for more than 2,000 years. The variety used today was introduced in 1899. It has also been credited in some studies with preventing heart attacks. Can irritate stomach lining, cause allergic reactions or attacks in asthma patients. Bayer aspirin, made by Eastman Kodak's Sterling Winthrop division, is the biggest brand name, but generics are widespread.

Acetaminophen:

Introduced in the early 1900s and considered one of the safest painkillers, it doesn't irritate stomach or cause allergic reactions. People with kidney or liver damage or anemics should avoid it. Brand name Tylenol, made by Johnson & Johnson, has been available over-the-counter since the mid-1950s but wasn't mass promoted until the late 1960s. Still No. 1 in sales, but losing ground to ibuprofen drugs.

Ibuprofen:

Introduced in 1967, one of a class of "nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory" drugs. Fewer side effects than aspirin but can cause upset stomach, itching, rash. Over-the-counter sales allowed in 1984. Major brands: Advil, Nuprin, Motrin. Generics widely available.

Combinations

Aspirin with caffeine. Caffeine helps the body absorb aspirin, has minor painkilling effects and acts as a stimulant. Heavy coffee drinkers should avoid it because excess caffeine can bring on headaches. Major brand: Anacin.

Aspirin with acetaminophen or caffeine. Major brands: Excedrin, Vanquish.

Aspirin or acetaminophen with antihistamines. Cures pain while acting as a mild sedative. Major brands: Excedrin PM, other drugs with PM suffix.

Naproxen:

Introduced in 1974, originally used to treat arthritis, chemically similar to ibuprofen. Use by the elderly and by patients with kidney, heart or gastrointestinal disorders should be limited. Use with aspirin risks gastrointestinal distress. Popularized by Syntex Corp. as a prescription drug under the name Naprosyn for arthritis. Combined with sodium and sold under the name Anaprox as a faster-acting prescription painkiller. Aleve is a lower dosage version of Anaprox.

Source: Associated Press