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Ethics and Nurofen… ’Assisting’ Consumers

Guest post by Professor Lyndon Simkin, Director of the Centre for Business in Society

Nurofen is one of the biggest brands on the shelves, trusted by millions of consumers and retail stockists around the world.

Now the courts in Australia have exposed what they see to be dubious marketing practices, ordering certain Nurofen variants from the shelves.

Maker Reckitt Benckiser is marketing separate variants of its market-leading painkiller which in terms of their active ingredients are the same product. Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain, Nurofen Tension Headache – each packaged in different colours and labelled for distinction – are, in the view of authorities in Australia, identical in terms of their active ingredient.

Nurofen’s defence has been that the products were “designed to help the consumer easily navigate the range”, particularly in supermarkets or stores without a pharmacist (BBC News, 14/12/15). It’s always nice when marketers ‘assist’ consumers, but more of this in a moment.

What caught my eye was the use of “informative names” as a defence. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) monitors over-the-counter medicines in the UK. MHRA’s view is that “informative names are permitted to help patients select an appropriate product without input from a healthcare professional”. OK, but the question then is whether consumers assume more from such branding and packaging practices than simple functional sign-posting… do these variants not imply specific formulations targeting specific pain areas? Or am I alone in assuming variation in the drugs inside the different packs? The manufacturer rightly will point to its clear labelling of ingredients and product contents, yet how many consumers – particularly those in pain – pause to compare such lists across competing products?

As I write this, Boots.com is offering Nurofen Tension Headaches (12 pack) at £2.85, Nurofen Back Pain (24 pack) at £6.49, Nurofen Migraine (12 pack) a £2.85 and Nurofen Period Pain (16 pack) at £3.75, admittedly with varying strengths across these variants. That works out at 24p per tablet, 27p, 24p and 24p respectively and the 27p Back Pain version is slow release. Except that the dosages vary, too… 342 mg, 300 mg, 342 mg and 200 mg, which also might well pose a question about value for money.

And such a scan across Boots.com’s pages brings me back to Reckitt Benckiser’s defence that this range extension is to help consumers navigate their options. If this really is the case, why vary pack size, type of tablet and strength to such an extent as to make comparisons for value for money across the range so difficult?

On this vexed topic, consumer campaigning group Which? recommends buying cheaper generic medicines wherever possible and if in doubt seeking the advice of a pharmacist. Sadly, in this case, perhaps not the advice of Nurofen’s marketers.

Now it’s 4.00 am as I type this. Why am I up at this time? I’m in search of meds to sort out my thumping headache… please pass me some Nurofen!

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Coventry University