This might be one of the drug industry's most despicable abuses of public health

Scoundrel time

It continues to shock me how seemingly innocent products that millions of people use every day become cancer risks. And this might be one of the most disturbing of all: Mouthwash products that contain alcohol could contribute to
oral cancer risk.

To put that in perspective, consider this: Classic, no-frills Listerine contains alcohol. Johnson & Johnson sells about $1 billion worth of Listerine yearly.

That’s a lot of potential risk.

Now, this isn’t the first we’re hearing of this. But a couple of years ago, when I first told you about an Australian study that revealed this risk, it struck a personal chord. In 2006, I lost a good friend, Robert, to neck cancer — a type of cancer that almost always begins in the oral cavity.

So I had a strong sense of regret — a feeling of “if only.” I have no idea if Robert used an alcohol-based mouthwash, but IF ONLY he had been warned years earlier…who knows?

And there was a second “if only.”

At the same time I told you about the possible mouthwash/cancer link, we were also finding out about an innovative method for easily detecting oral cancer in its early stages. That method evolved into the Oral CDx Brush Test that dentists can use to identify precancerous cells in the mouth.

If you’ve ever lost someone you cared about to oral cancer or head and neck cancer, I’m sure you can relate to how I still feel about all this. IF ONLY the mouthwash/cancer link was known earlier. IF ONLY the CDx test had been available earlier.

But here’s where my personal regret is suddenly catapulted to something closer to all-out rage. A new lawsuit charges that a large drug company may have attempted to suppress the development of the test that detects early stage oral cancer.

Care to guess the name of that company?

I bet you got it first guess

Ironically, a former unit of Johnson & Johnson called OraPharma once had a business arrangement with the company that makes the Oral CDx Brush Test.

That company — Oral Cancer Prevention International (OCPI) — struck a deal with OraPharma to distribute CDx tests to dentists. This was a great opportunity for OCPI because the OraPharma sales force already had relationships with many dentists.

But in a recent lawsuit, OCPI makes a claim that, if true, will stand as one of the drug industry’s most despicable abuses of public health — all in the name of making an extra buck, of course.

According to a Bloomberg report, the lawsuit charges that J&J “never had any intention of allowing OraPharma to sell
OralCDx to those dentists most likely to adopt its use in their practices.”

The suit also claims that J&J attempted to control and suppress CDx sales to dentists who J&J thought would be most likely to recommend Listerine to patients, “thereby depriving the public of a known cancer prevention product and destroying OCPI’s dental business.”

Keeping in mind that these are, at the moment, allegations only, I have to ask, as I’ve asked many times: How do these people sleep at night? How do they live with themselves knowing they’ve suppressed something so fundamentally useful and potentially life-saving?

I will never know.

The lawsuit is still pending. Knowing this hasn’t been the best year for J&J, there’s no telling how it might turn out. But I will keep you posted.

Meanwhile…the good news is that dentists now have this remarkable tool that can be used to easily detect the earliest stages of oral cancer. Ask your dentist about the Oral CDx Brush Test — especially if you’re a smoker, a heavy drinker, or if you’ve used an alcohol-based mouthwash daily for many years.

You can find much more information about CDx at sopreventable.com.

Sources:
“The Role of Alcohol in Oral Carcinogenesis with Particular Reference to Alcohol-Containing Mouthwashes” Australian Dental Journal, Vol. 53, No. 4, December 2008, interscience.wiley.com

“J&J Suppressed Oral Prevention Cancer Test Over Listerine Link, Suit Says” David Voreacos and Alex Nussbaum, Bloomberg, 7/8/11, bloomberg.com

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